The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) announced awards to five commercial Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite operators yesterday. This represents the first batch of contracts under a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) framework the agency is using to rapidly evaluate and integrate new commercial space services for the US DoD and Intelligence Community. The five companies receiving contracts include four startups and one defense prime: Capella Space, ICEYE (Seraphim portfolio company), PredaSAR, Umbra and Airbus. The NRO plans to assess their radar capabilities and use the information to develop requirements that could lead to "operational contracts" and "a program of record", according to the NRO's director of Commercial Systems Program Office.
The global commercial SAR market is at an inflection point with more than half a dozen smallsat SAR companies expanding their constellations in the coming year, not counting China's plans to launch their own SAR capabilities. SAR can overcome the weakness of traditional optical satellite data by providing 24/7 remote sensing that can see through clouds, darkness and smoke, which opens up new applications in every major market vertical from maritime, energy, agriculture, insurance to environmental and critical infrastructure monitoring.
This award is very positive for the New Space and Earth Observation industry for two reasons. First, the NRO award would help accelerate commercial adoption of SAR and geospatial analytics. As growing commercial smallsats have disrupted the traditional satellite optical data market, they are doing the same in SAR by delivering high resolution and high frequency SAR data while driving down costs. Advances in cloud computing, AI/ML and innovative offerings by startups like Ursa Space have transformed working with SAR from a lengthy and labor-intensive process to more user friendly, automated analytics and insights at scale.
In addition, the NRO award kicks off the beginning of the agency's strategy to accelerate commercial capabilities. The NRO sees radar as the first focus area and plans to look at hyperspectral imaging, radio frequency (RF) sensing and more. This is consistent with the new US Commercial GEOINT strategy released at the end of last year to improve the DoD and intelligence community (IC) use of commercial geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) relative to classified, government owned assets.
“We are very pleased with the response to the first focus area under our new Broad Agency Announcement,” said NRO Director Chris Scolese in a statement. “We know that users across the National System for Geospatial Intelligence are eager to explore commercial radar, and these contracts will allow us to rapidly validate capabilities and the benefits to the national mission.” Unlike traditional electro-optical imagery, synthetic aperture radar is unaffected by cloud cover, darkness or inclement weather, making it useful for a number of intelligence missions. SAR can also provide data on material properties, moisture content, elevation and precise movements.