Op-ed | To lead in space, the United States must modernize satellite regulations

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Fifty-five years ago today, U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered one of the speeches that defined his legacy, a soaring oratory that laid out the vision and rationale for putting a man on the moon. It marked the beginning of an extraordinary era of U.S. leadership in space that spawned an incredible array of technologies and human benefits, from laptop computers and GPS navigation, to telemedicine and advanced artificial limbs.

While the nation’s future plans for human space exploration have rightly stirred a passionate national debate in recent years, another vital space sector tends to fly under the radar: commercial satellite imaging. This is the technology that powers our online maps and location-based apps, keeps deployed U.S. and coalition troops safe, and enables aid workers to respond to natural and man-made disasters with greater speed and efficiency. It also exposes human rights abuses, as highlighted by a 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press investigation that used satellite imagery to catch an illegal fishing operation in the act and free more than 2,000 slaves. Satellite imagery is also a key enabler for numerous global transformations that are underway, including the development of autonomous vehicles and the deployment of 5G broadband networks.

Colorado-based DigitalGlobe was the first company to commercialize this technology 25 years ago, and we continue to lead what has become a large, rapidly evolving international industry. Yet today, the United States risks ceding its position of technology leadership in this important field. American satellite imaging firms are still regulated by a 25-year-old law, passed at a time when there were no smartphones, people thought the internet was a fad, and you couldn’t buy an electric or hybrid car.

This law, the U.S. Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, is badly in need of updating, as the world has changed dramatically since then, and so has the commercial remote sensing industry. Today there are dozens of countries and companies building Earth observation satellites, many of which are employing advanced technologies to gather valuable new types of data from space. Those based outside the United States are not governed by our outdated rules, and thus often have an advantage in the global marketplace.

While the 1992 Act spoke of assuring U.S. leadership, the practice has been the opposite. U.S. restrictions on commercial radar imaging satellites prevented a domestic industry from materializing, handing the market to international firms. DigitalGlobe’s 1999 request to sell its highest-resolution satellite imagery was only granted in 2014, despite the availability of much sharper imagery from aircraft, and only due to the leadership of a handful of forward-thinking U.S. government officials. American firms must wait months for government approval to enter into large foreign imagery sales agreements, creating a competitive disadvantage.

One of our satellites, called WorldView-3, collects shortwave infrared (SWIR) imagery, which can be used to pierce through forest fire smoke, identify rooftop materials, and detect mineral deposits. Sadly, regulatory restrictions require us to severely degrade the quality of this imagery for commercial customers, despite having requested permission to sell full-resolution SWIR imagery more than three years ago. This regulatory dysfunction was on display last year when wildfires burned Fort McMurray and the surrounding areas in Alberta, Canada. DigitalGlobe supported the Alberta provincial government’s response efforts with SWIR imagery that penetrated the heavy smoke and showed where the fires were actually burning. But the imagery we provided had only 25 percent of the information that the satellite originally collected, meaning that firefighters’ decision-making confidence was needlessly and dramatically reduced. Access to this data is even more essential in the United States, where the annual acreage burned by wildfires has quadrupled since the 1980s, to an area about the size of New Jersey.

These burdens prevent American companies from competing fairly, while foreign competitors are subject to less onerous restrictions. Fortunately, the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee in June passed H.R. 2809, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2017, which would make critical updates to the law governing satellite imaging. This bill would clearly define the technologies and business activities that are regulated and streamline the licensing process to ensure that decisions are made within 90 days, rather than in many months or years. The new legislation would presume approval of new commercial capabilities, and denial of these requests would have to be made at the cabinet level after thorough review. This legislation would require the Secretary of Commerce to provide insight into how and why licensing decisions were made, offering a greater level of predictability and transparency for the industry. Finally, this bill would grant regulatory authority to a new and much-needed Office of Space Commerce at the Deputy Undersecretary level within the Department of Commerce.

The reforms outlined in the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act would allow U.S. companies to be more competitive, create jobs, spur innovation, and reaffirm our nation’s commitment to the leadership in space that President Kennedy called for in 1962. That’s why DigitalGlobe and industry groups like the Satellite Industry Association and Commercial Spaceflight Federation support modernizing commercial remote sensing regulations. Congress should act on these reforms identified in the bill as soon as possible.

Dr. Walter Scott is the founder, executive vice president and chief technology officer of DigitalGlobe.