WorldView-3 satellite. Credit: Ball Aerospace

ORLANDO, Fla. – DigitalGlobe leaders say they are still waiting on approval from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to sell higher-resolution infrared imagery data from their Worldview-3 satellite nearly three years after they first submitted a license request.

Walter Scott, chief technical officer and executive vice president of DigitalGlobe, mentioned the delay during a panel discussion here at the GEOINT 2016 conference May 17.

The Short Wave Infrared (SWIR) imager, built by Exelis, is one of three instruments on DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite, which launched in 2014. When fully-utilized, the SWIR images allow customers to determine which materials are used in building construction, to see through smoke and clouds, and to more accurately characterize rock structures. It also offers a wide swath of applications to commercial users, ranging from insurers to archaeologists.

The SWIR imager can produce 3.7-meter resolution data, company officials say, but DigitalGlobe is only licensed to sell that data to the U.S. government. Non-government customers can purchase 7.5-meter resolution data. As such, Scott said those customers are essentially receiving images with 75 percent less clarity. The delay has stifled how industry can discover new uses for the data, Scott said.

Before (first) and after (second) photos of the 2014 fires in Happy Camp, California that show how SWIR satellite imagery can help customers see through smoke and wildfires. Credit: DigitalGlobe
Before (first) and after (second) photos of the 2014 fires in Happy Camp, California that show how SWIR satellite imagery can help customers see through smoke and wildfires. Credit: DigitalGlobe

With NOAA as the licensing authority, several federal agencies, including the Commerce, State, Defense and Treasury departments, are reviewing DigitalGlobe’s request and studying the issue for possible national security implications. It is unclear when a decision will be made.

Scott’s comments came during a panel discussion of government and industry leaders who suggested the Defense Department and intelligence community need to be more tolerant of risk in both policy and acquisition in order to reap the most benefit from a burgeoning space imagery industry.

“The regulatory process does not operate at the speed industry innovates,” Scott said in an interview.

Other panelists said the government may be inadvertently contributing to national security risks if it does not move fast enough to embrace new approaches.

Lisa Porter, executive vice president of Cosmiq Works, said the government needs to consider the possibility that startup companies could move off shore if they find policies too restrictive or too slow. Such a decision could result in less effective technology available to the national security community, she said.

Cosmiq Works is part of the intelligence community’s non-profit investment arm In-Q-Tel and works as a lab to helps government customers navigate the commercial space world.

Government leaders need to ask themselves, “what is the risk of my not approving this,” she said.

Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said there is inherent risk in any acquisition, but that the Pentagon must become more familiar with the emerging space sector in order to better understand those risks and make more informed decisions.

Conversely, Robbie Schingler, the co-founder of satellite imagery startup Planet Labs, said as companies attract more commercial customers they reduce the “perceived risk” the government may have about working with them.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.