The GEOINT Symposium in San Antonio last week hosted over 4,400 geospatial intelligence professionals, an approximate 10% growth in attendance over last year. But in the shadow of looming U.S. federal government budget cuts, the big question is this: Was the growth of the conference a result of many defense industry contractors chasing decreasing dollars or will there be growth regardless of a cloudy funding picture?
USGIF President Keith Masback said that he had expected reduced attendance this year and fully expects that next year there may be a decline in the number of booths on the exhibit floor. However, Masback was decidedly upbeat about the prospects for steady progress in the industry. Brigadier General (Ret.) Jack Pellicci, now president of Intergraph Government Systems, said that there were fewer potential clients at the conference this year and he expects 2013 and 2014 to be challenging years for geospatial intelligence budgets.
The reality is that intelligence gathering through geospatial, signal or human sources is on the increase and terrorism, on either foreign or domestic soil, will not abate. So, while every keynote speaker representing either an intelligence agency or a defense contractor addressed the specter of significantly reduced intelligence budgets, any observer of the conference exhibit floor would tell you that this industry is thriving. In a press briefing after his public comments to the conference attendees, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger (D, Maryland) said he feels that the intelligence community is "on our game now" and that we are privileged to have leaders in place who are exceptional in their jobs. But he also said that there are certain programs that we just can’t afford right now. "We just can’t have all of them…Whatever we do [keep] we have to do 100%," said Ruppersberger.
Ruppersberger and colleague Mike Rogers (R, Michigan), both members of the House Intelligence Committee that reviews budgets for the activities of the GEOINT and other intelligence communities (ICs), are working to remove politics from the discussion of budget cuts. Ruppersberger said they are going program by program to examine what makes sense for the country's intelligence gathering capabilities and making cuts where necessary. Cuts currently being suggested for FY 2012 are in the range of $1 billion. "We must maximize American ingenuity, but we must also be sensitive to costs," said Ruppersberger.
Ruppersberger wants to foster the development of the commercial space industry. He believes that the restrictions on the commercial space program are stifling the industry. He wants commercial satellite companies to be able to sell overseas, though he is aware that certain regulations must be in place to protect our national security. Ruppersberger pointed out that the U.S. government spends more money on launching rockets than any country in the world; he believes the private industry may be able to do this more efficiently. "The problem is not the people, but the system," he said. The congressman said we need to encourage competition. “It is inexcusable that companies go to Russia to launch their satellites."
Budget constraints did not deter the defense contractors from coming out in droves to GEOINT. Over 250 exhibitors were present at the show this year and the exhibit floor was busy throughout the first two days of the conference. Cloud computing was the key buzz word. DigitalGlobe's vice president, Stephen Wood, was optimistic about his company's approach to delivering more analytical solutions to clients with too much data to process. He sees his company delivering specialized services to customers in the cloud. The company's First Watch and Diplomatic Facilities solutions are focused on rapid response and threat mitigation, respectively.
Many mission critical tasks are now being supported in the cloud. It reduces the need for extensive training and utilizes Web services, exactly what the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency director, Letitia Long, is pushing her agency to do with data and imagery being delivered on mobile devices. Her goal is to expose 100% of the content within the agency and make it discoverable. Any source material, commercial remotely sensed data or imagery from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and other foundation data, whether they are spatial or aspatial in nature, she wants posted on the NGA website.
The growth of both geospatial intelligence as an industry sector and the GEOINT Symposium hinges on impending budget discussions in Congress. The mission is expanding for geospatial intelligence acquisition and analysis but with assuredly declining budgets. Long said in her press conference, "We have irreversible momentum. We are going in the right directions. We are getting tremendously positive feedback from all of our users out there and basically what they are saying is: Can you do more and can you do it faster? So, that's what we are going to continue to do over this next year." Masback was guarded in his prediction for next year but believes the impact of budgets for the GEOINT Symposium may not be as severe as some may suspect. "I am absolutely comfortable predicting that we will fall off those [attendee] numbers next year. I'm absolutely comfortable predicting that we will probably fall off our record number of 250 exhibitors this year. But I don't think it will be significant because we have expanded our reach into different segments of this industry. We've expanded our reach more into homeland security, in addition to defense and intelligence. So, I think we'll see some fall-off in our record numbers this year but I don't think it will be drastic."
My take: There is a lot of momentum in geospatial intelligence. As military forces are drawn down overseas, reliance on remotely sensed, high resolution satellite image intelligence will be the key to maintaining homeland security in an era of multiple terror threats. Whether the threats come directly from terrorist groups on home and foreign fronts or via cyber attacks, the applications of geospatial technology will be called upon to help keep our guard up. However, like the return on investments made in the space program years ago, the innovations derived from the intelligence community can be applied to business as well. It’s likely that some of the defense contractors will realize that the integration of location technology with business intelligence and the rapid analysis of structured and unstructured data used in the IC can also be applied to the private sector. It may indeed be the next logical market for the defense contractors when at least some defense dollars disappear.