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26 September 2007

A glimpse of Porter’s Five Forces at work in the commercial imagery industry

Not so long (chronologically) but an eternity (in terms of privatization concepts) ago, the first generation of high resolution commercial space based imagery systems for intelligence came into existence. These architectures – and their operators – spent far longer than they ever should have needed to in fighting for their rightful place at the intelligence table. The very idea of private sector capabilities usurping the government monopoly on overhead systems was so unthinkable for many within the community that had the Long War not gone hot and every second of imaging capacity been desperately needed, we might never have seen the development of the industry – let alone the remarkable directions that it has trended towards in the hands of the Google / Keyhole team.

At the dawn of its earliest, hard fought, and tentative acceptance, another new technology was emerging. Unlike the expensive and arcane world of satellites, the UAV offered an immediate, accessible, and understandable tool to the community. More importantly, it was a technology they could directly control throughout its full life-cycle – and that is critical to a certain kind of procurement and operations mindset.

Needless to say, the UAV has been a Very Good Thing for the GEOINT community – and at the same time, opened new frontiers in the mix between collection, analysis and warfighting. But these systems largely remain dedicated to looking at the battlespace through a soda straw. It is for that reason that many of the proponents of imagery intelligence continue to dismiss the idea that UAV’s will ever compete with the better resourced national technical means – or even their commercial imaging counterparts – in providing theatre-level and strategic IMINT.

The true dynamics of competition are very rarely understood within the halls of government, and too often likewise among the contractors which are ever so sensitively attuned to non-rational markets dominated by government dictum that they can no longer recognize the forces at work in the open market. (There is a reason why the Long War’s most popular acquisition programs have occurred through proponency from the ground up – often by individuals and small units voting with their feet, and government cards.)

Thus we note with interest the first indicators that the received wisdom regarding the relative competitive positioning of UAVs versus other more traditional overhead systems may soon be subject to radical change – brought on by pressures along a different axis of Porter’s Five Forces model.

The home-built UAV market is emerging in fascinating ways from a simple, if obscure, hobby, into much more sophisticated technical and conceptual approaches. Chris Anderson (of Long Tail fame) is doing much to advance it through his own efforts, including integration of imagery collected through these personal UAV systems into a coherent processing framework – in this case, the ubiquitous Google Earth.

In a way, it is fitting to see that private hobbyist efforts may yet open new vistas for imagery intelligence – just as they did in the earliest days of “photographic intelligence” by balloon, bird, and kite.

We certainly think there are a few lessons being taught to the community here. In our mind’s eye, we see these lectures being given by the Mechanical Turk, with texts provided by Yochai Benkler, in a classroom not too dissimilar from what one might find in Second Life.

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