Commentary | Higher-res Commercial Satellite Imagery on Hold

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A new commercial Earth imaging satellite to be launched this summer will have a ground resolution of 31 centimeters. It will be the world’s highest-resolution commercial imaging satellite, able to see objects on the ground as small as a shoebox. And it will be able to characterize and map an object that size to within several meters of its true location on the surface of the planet. The problem is, we may not be able to have access to it. 

Satellite imagery is used today in the defense and intelligence industries for mapping, disaster preparedness and response, and intelligence gathering. The same technology is used by the oil and gas, mining, insurance and agriculture industries, and also for urban planning, environmental monitoring, news reporting and even archaeology. It is the backbone for the growing location-base services market and cloud mapping programs such as Google Earth and Maps.

Imagery together with many other layers of information — such as census data or human geography or any number of databases — provides decision makers with the analytical tools they need to make well-informed decisions. And the day is at hand where one is now able to make logical and accurate assumptions about the future utilizing predictive analytics and geospatial technologies.

But the public will not get access to the best-quality imagery from this new satellite. That’s because current U.S. government restrictions won’t allow commercial companies to zoom in any farther than what is available from existing remote sensing satellites. The limit is set at 50 centimeters ground resolution. That means limits in innovation, competitiveness and leadership when it comes to satellite imagery. 

The current policy was put in place 14 years ago by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s that agency within the Department of Commerce that regulates the commercial remote sensing industry. But in reality, while they have a voice at the table, it’s members of the national security community who determine what is permissible when it comes to resolution and what is not. 

Quite simply, higher-resolution imagery means more information can be extracted from it. More details can be discerned and mapping information becomes more accurate. New satellites will also have a larger number of spectral bands so they’ll see not only what’s on the ground in more detail but in wavelengths not visible by the human eye.

Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, the company launching the new WorldView-3 high-resolution imaging satellite this August, has petitioned the U.S. government to relax the restriction and modify its operating license so it can provide this higher-quality imagery to customers when the new satellite becomes operational. It’s been almost a year since DigitalGlobe formally requested this change, so it’s likely the company will hear back — one way or the other — from the government very soon.

It’s encouraging that the Senate Intelligence Committee in the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act recommended “the relaxation of imagery resolution restrictions currently in place on the U.S. commercial satellite industry and a review to determine the appropriate role of commercial satellite imagery in fulfilling intelligence requirements.” The committee’s reason was its concern that foreign commercial satellite imagery providers may soon be able to provide that higher-resolution imagery, which would pose a competitive disadvantage to American firms.

The license provisions prevent U.S. providers of remote sensing services from competing for commercial business on a level playing field with foreign and aerial competitors. By failing to allow U.S. imagery providers to leverage their technological capabilities and requiring them to artificially degrade the quality of their imagery, the license restrictions give foreign competitors an advantage. If policies don’t change, American imagery providers will likely get out of the business or build future systems that meet policy guidelines rather than systems that are more innovative and advanced.

At Thermopylae, we agree with the Senate Intelligence Committee. As geospatial intelligence providers, we recognize that every advancement in resolution, accuracy and the number of imaging bands opens up opportunities for companies to leverage those data and make better products and services. Not having access to that advanced imagery, especially when others around the world may do so sooner than later, is a competitive detriment.

We work closely with Google to provide geospatial solutions built on their mapping platform — in fact, we were recently named its Enterprise Partner of the Year 2013 for Google Maps. So we are keenly aware of the difference that advances in resolution and image accuracy can make.

Apart from offering the new imagery simply as a foundational component of Google Earth and Maps, which our iSpatial tool is built around, we envision using it to process information faster and more accurately all on a highly scalable platform.

The National Space Policy says, “The United States is committed to encouraging and facilitating the growth of a U.S. commercial space sector that supports U.S. needs, is globally competitive, and advances U.S. leadership in the generation of new markets and innovative-driven entrepreneurship.”

A compelling way that the government can facilitate this policy is to let U.S. commercial satellite firms sell their best-resolution products and encourage them to build follow-on systems that are even more capable and advanced.

 

A.J. Clark is president of Thermopylae Sciences and Technology.