Federal government pledges $500 million to satellite intelligence

By on 21 June, 2017

Australia’s federal government has announced that AU$500 million will be put towards improving Australia’s space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

The project, named Defence Project 799, aims primarily to support Australia’s defence operations, border protection and humanitarian missions. However, in the official announcement the government has also hinted at providing this capability to the commercial sector.

Minister for Defence Industry, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP and Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Marise Payne this week committed $500 million to improve the Australian Defence Force’s access to commercial satellites to provide information to government agencies. While the government has made no mention of which satellite companies are involved, in the official media release they did include images of both DigitalGlobe and Airbus Defence and Space satellites.

Senator Payne said that Defence Project 799 was introduced in the 2016 Defence White Paper to enhance Australia’s geospatial-intelligence capabilities.

This brings Australia further into a new age of space investment. The news follows on from last month’s announcement of a new open access satellite imagery platform Digital Earth Australia, which promises to provide 10 metre resolution imagery nationwide, updated every five days. Meanwhile, Australia, New Zealand and a host of technology companies are in the process of testing new precise satellite positioning capabilities in the region, including SBAS and PPP (read our explainer here). Together, this all gives extra weight to recent discussions about the launch of an Australian Space Agency.

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One of the first datasets released as part of Digital Earth Australia is the intertidal zone extent map (ITEM), which covers the entirety of Australia’s extensive coastline.

Phase 1 of the Defence Project 799 will provide direct and more timely access to commercial imaging satellites to support a wide range of Defence and national security activities.

Senator Payne outlined that the project’s primary aim is defence: “Defence’s enhanced access to these satellites will increase Australia’s capacity to maintain surveillance and improve situational awareness for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and other national security agencies through the provision of high-quality imagery,” she said.

“This means imagery from high-end commercial satellites, now in orbit, will be integrated directly into the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation’s imagery dissemination systems, reducing the time it will take for satellite imagery to get to a member of the ADF or the officers of Australia’s national security agencies.”

Minister Christopher Pyne said these contracting arrangements will provide improved value for money for the Australian Government when accessing commercial imagery.

He also indicated that around $14 million will be spent to build the ground infrastructure to collect imagery from commercial satellites. A total of $130 million will also be spent on support contracts over the 13 year life of the project providing commercial opportunities for Australian companies – including in the Northern Territory and South Australia.

The official media release also also hinted at providing this capability to the commercial sector. It stated that, “this investment will also create opportunities for Australian companies interested in satellite technology and imagery analysis.”

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