U.K. Blocks Bid To Create Common European Imagery Policy


BRUSSELS — The European Commission’s effort to set common European regulations on the sale of high-resolution satellite imagery outside Europe has been blocked by the British government and is likely to be watered down to an advisory notice instead of a binding policy, European government officials said.

The goal was to create common rules on which a country would be able to receive high-resolution imagery — whose definition is changing with the gallop of technology — and under what general conditions.

“The idea that different nations have different policies on say, what is sold to Korea or somewhere else makes all this confusing,” one European Commission official said here during a Jan. 28-30 space policy conference. “The British seem to have taken issue with this; I am not sure why.”

David Willetts, Britain’s minister for science and universities, who has principal responsibility for space policy, said in a Jan. 29 interview that the British government has concluded that a blanket European Union regulation would undermine the commercial high-resolution satellite image industry in Europe.

Willetts further said that the EU proposal is an example of the EU involving itself in an area in which there is no real demand for EU mediation.

European governments have maintained national satellite imagery-export policies even as European industry has become transnational. As a result, on several occasions in the past a European prime contractor would, when signing Earth observation export contracts, adopt one or another national flag depending on which national policy was most likely to support the export order.

Europe’s two principal satellite prime contractors, Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy and Airbus Defence and Space, formerly Astrium, of France, Germany, Britain and Spain, have both posted multiple successes in satellite Earth observation exports. Export orders have included medium- and high-resolution optical satellite systems, and synthetic aperture radar satellites as well.

The two companies are now competing to sell a high-resolution radar satellite system to the Russian government, but they joined forces to sell the two-satellite Falcon Eye high-resolution optical system to the United Arab Emirates.

While telecommunications satellite sales remain a much higher-volume business, both prime contractors — and others including Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain and the German-Italian OHB AG — have said the demand for Earth observation systems of varying sharpness is accelerating, not slowing, among emerging-market nations.

DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., the principal U.S. provider of high-resolution satellite imagery, and several of its European counterparts are urging their respective governments to loosen the current regulations on satellite imagery sales.

These regulations set a maximum sharpness of 50 centimeters for black-and-white optical imagery, a limit that these companies say dates from years ago before the widespread availability of higher-resolution imagery.


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