NIMA taps 15 firms for mapping

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency last week awarded contracts to 15 vendors under a $500 million program to create detailed maps and charts based on digital data gathered by satellite and aircraft, potentially paving the way for a greater reliance on commercial map-making services.

The five-year Omnibus Geospatial Information and Imagery Intelligence project replaces dozens of ordering agreements that NIMA had used to buy similar mapping services.

But with the recent boom in the commercial map-making, imagery and satellite field, industry observers say the centralized omnibus contract should offer companies a greater opportunity to win business from NIMA, which historically has kept much of its mapping and imagery functions in-house.

"I'm hopeful that this experiment will demonstrate to a lot of folks - both inside the government and outside - that there is a qualified private sector to provide quality geographic information services," said John Palatiello, executive director of Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS), Reston, Va., a national association of private-sector firms in the surveying, spatial data and geographic information systems field.

NIMA officials declined to comment on the awards.

According to the solicitation, NIMA made the omnibus awards based on a qualifications-based selection (QBS) process, in which the pool of vendors was first narrowed based on qualifications to perform certain tasks. Final winners were chosen from the resulting pool. No contract winner, however, has been guaranteed more than $3,000 in business, according to NIMA documents.

Industry had been pressing for the QBS approach for years, arguing that the agency's lowest-bid approach to awarding map or imagery work was unfair. "Unfortunately, they had some very unfortunate experience with that [approach], where they got exactly what they paid for," Palatiello said.

For EarthData International LLC, which has about 150 employees, the NIMA contract represents a significant win, company executives said. "This is big time for EarthData," said George Hoffman, a director of operations at the company. Within the next year or two, the omnibus contract "could be one-third of our business," he said.

"We look at it as a significant opportunity for us," said Penman "Red" Gilliam, executive vice president at Intergraph Corp. Existing ordering agreements with NIMA "haven't produced a real steady flow of work.... This is going to be, I think, a better arrangement."

Observers say the omnibus contract gives the agency a central, agencywide contracting vehicle that it can use to buy those services, rather than the scattered, more narrowly focused deals now in place. It also coincides with a heightened interest by NIMA officials in commercially available services. "I will give credit to the new regime at NIMA [for having] a new enlightened thinking," Palatiello said. "They have realized that in-house production is not the best solution."

According to industry observers, the new NIMA contract may help jump-start a new commercial imagery segment based on "1-meter" imagery, a resolution in which the naked eye is able to distinguish objects that are 1 meter or larger in size.

National satellites already are capable of producing imagery with even better resolution, according to industry sources. But industry observers say 1-meter imagery will be popular in government and business because it offers imagery detailed enough to plan military missions or real estate projects but not so detailed as to be cumbersome to use.

Omnibus winner Space Imaging plans to launch a 1-meter-resolution satellite by June, meaning its 1-meter imagery products would be available to NIMA and its customers - military mission planners and policy-makers.

"It's basically going to take something like this [contract] to jump-start that [1-meter] market segment," said John Pike, director of the Space Policy Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

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