National Reconnaissance Office expands use of commercial satellite imagery

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WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office, the Pentagon agency that designs, launches and and operates earth observational satellites for the U.S. government, said it awarded imagery contracts worth billions of dollars to three companies, significantly expanding its use of commercial space services.

Through its Electro-Optical Commercial Layer program, or EOCL, the U.S. agency responsible for developing and operating spy satellites, issued 10-year contracts to satellite imagery companies BlackSky, Maxar Technologies Inc. and Planet Labs. In a statement Wednesday, NRO called the award a “historic expansion” of its commercial imagery acquisition.

“EOCL allows us to meet a larger number of customer requirements more quickly than ever before and dedicate national systems to the most challenging and sensitive missions,” the agency said. “The EOCL awards are the culmination of close collaboration with stakeholders from across the defense and intelligence communities.”

NRO gave no value for individual contracts. BlackSky, which has offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va., said in a statement its deal is worth as much as $1 billion over a decade. Maxar, based in Westminster, Colo., said its contract is valued at more than $3 billion. San Francisco-based Planet did not disclose its contract total.

Commercial satellite imagery is seeing increased demand, supplementing government-owned space sensing capabilities and recently providing key insights into Russian troop movements in Ukraine. NRO in 2019 awarded contracts to Maxar, BlackSky and Planet to conduct initial market research on the ability of commercial companies to meet government satellite imagery needs. Last Fall, the agency announced it would pursue the EOCL and solicited bids from industry.

“EOCL will support the mission needs of NRO’s half-million intelligence, defense and federal civil agency users over the next decade,” NRO said in the statement. “It will also help ensure long-term continued support for the U.S. Commercial remote sensing industry.”

Previously, NRO’s primary source for imagery was through a contract called EnhancedView, which originated with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. NGA was responsible for buying commercial imagery until 2017, when that responsibility transferred to the NRO.

EOCL was designed to improve upon the EnhancedView effort to make imagery distribution easier and more standardized.

The agency plans to award future contracts for commercial sensing capabilities and has issued study contracts for synthetic aperture radar, radio frequency remote sensing and hyperspectral imaging. In a broad agency announcement issued in October, NRO offered a framework for future commercial imagery acquisition.