WorldView Legion Maxar SSL
Artist's rendition of WorldView Legion satellites. Credit: Maxar Technologies.

WASHINGTON — An industry advisory group will recommend significant changes to a proposal to revise commercial remote sensing regulations, arguing the current proposal falls short of what’s needed to keep up with the industry’s capabilities and needs.

Members of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing, or ACCRES, spent half of their day-long meeting at the Commerce Department June 4 discussing a notice of proposed rulemaking published by NOAA May 14 that would make the first major changes to how commercial satellite imaging systems are regulated since 2006.

The proposed rule is intended to streamline how such systems are licensed by NOAA as the volume of license applications the office receives increases. However, many ACCRES members argued that proposal missed the mark and could create new burdens for companies.

“I find, at the moment, that the draft rule is wanting across the board, and it’s not close,” said Gil Klinger, chair of ACCRES and a Raytheon vice president who spent most of his career at the Defense Department and the intelligence community.

His committee held an extended discussion of the proposed rule that brought up a wide range of issues with it. One is a proposal to classify license applicants as either “low-risk” or “high-risk,” with the latter requiring a more thorough interagency review. According to NOAA’s overview of the rule, a review of past applications concluded that about 40 percent of systems would be considered low-risk.

However, ACCRES members said that the criteria in the rule to define low-risk systems would largely exclude commercial systems. “It’s very difficult for anything to fall into the low-risk category,” said Michelle Kley, an ACCRES member and lawyer who has worked on NOAA licensing applications in the past. “It puts you back into where we are now.”

“Virtually every commercial system is high risk,” said Tony Lin of law firm Hogan Lovells. “No one wants to be high risk.”

Another issue with the proposed regulations involves how it treats “non-Earth imaging,” where commercial remote sensing satellites are used to observe objects such as other satellites and orbital debris. “We’re pleased to see that it says that companies can do non-Earth imaging, but we’re concerned that a lot of restrictions and conditions that we had expressed concerns about remained in the draft proposal,” said Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.

Those limitations include restricting imaging to the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as getting prior approval from the government 30 days in advance to image another space object and have permission of the owner of that object. “If it’s a piece of space debris, how do you even know who to ask permission of?” he said. A 30-day prior approval period, he noted, could prevent companies from quickly inspecting a satellite in the event of an anomaly.

Even after postponing other items on the agenda for the ACCRES meeting to accommodate an expanded discussion of the proposed rule, members decided to arrange for another meeting, tentatively scheduled for July 11, for further discussion of the rule and agreement on committee positions for recommended changes. The deadline for the public comment period on the proposed rule is July 15.

NOAA and Commerce Department officials welcomed the feedback. “We have to be as forward leaning as possible,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in remarks at the beginning of the meeting. “I invite you to provide us with your most candid thoughts as we propose to issue a final rule aimed at maintaining U.S. global leadership in remote sensing.” He promised to “quickly turn around a final rule” once the public comment period closes.

That process, though, will involve interagency discussions. “We should be working to help arm NOAA and the Department of Commerce to participate in a potential deputies meeting, should this some to that level of discussion,” said Weeden. “We should prepare NOAA and the department to argue on behalf of industry.”

Klinger said that revisions should go beyond regulations for licensing commercial remote sensing systems to overall national policy on commercial remote sensing. That policy, designated NSPD-27, was last updated in 2003.

“NSPD-27 is out of date and it reflects a world that, more than not, no longer exists,” he said, calling for a revision of that policy. “In my mind, there is nothing that the U.S. policy community could do that would have greater impact on a more enduring basis.”

Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, didn’t address such a revision of commercial remote sensing policy in remarks at the meeting, but did emphasize the importance of revising regulations to make the United States competitive in the global remote sensing industry.

“We want to be the most attractive jurisdiction in the world for private sector investment,” he said. “But if we get regulations wrong we can make it an unattractive place to do business and give an advantage to others.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...