WorldView-3 satellite. Credit: Ball Aerospace

TITUSVILLE, Fla. — Members of a House committee and a group of industry witnesses used a Sept. 7 hearing to criticize delays and uncertainty in commercial remote sensing licensing as well as “slow-rolling” of a report on the issue required by law.

At the hearing by the House space subcommittee, members and witnesses both expressed concern that problems with the licensing process today, including extended delays of reviews of license applications and perceived arbitrary rejections, could drive businesses to move to other countries.

“The reality is that the globalization of this technology and the information that is coming from it now creates incentives for other countries to offer deals and opportunities for people to move overseas,” said Kevin O’Connell, former chairman of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES), a federal advisory panel.

O’Connell and others likened the current situation to the 1990s, when U.S. companies planning satellites to provide synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery encountered difficulties getting approvals from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which licenses commercial remote sensing satellites. Those ventures abandoned those plans, and commercial SAR imagery is today largely provided by companies in Canada and Europe.

“Due to regulatory uncertainty and dysfunction in the executive branch license determination processes, U.S. investment went overseas,” recalled Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee. “We can’t make the mistake again.”

Industry is concerned today about delays in getting licenses, which can take far longer than the 120-day review period in current law. This is particularly true for systems that seek to offer high-resolution infrared or hyperspectral imagery, which have apparently triggered extensive interagency reviews to examine their national security implications. DigitalGlobe, for example, is still awaiting a decision from NOAA on a license application filed in 2013 for shortwave infrared imagery from its WorldView-3 satellite.

Witnesses said that companies filing applications sometimes get little or no reason why a license application was rejected. “When they got a ‘no,’ or they got the license revoked, were they given a ‘why’?” said Michele R. Weslander Quaid, a consultant who previously worked in the intelligence community and for Google. Often, she said, companies are not given an explanation. “The burden of proof should be on the government to say why not, and articulate that.”

“It calls for a better conversation between the government on its precise national security concerns and the industry,” O’Connell said. “We have to have a better way to convey those national security concerns, clearly and crisply, to companies that are in the market.”

Part of the problem, other witnesses said, is that the commercial remote sensing licensing process has its roots in a 1992 act that has seen few updates since. “Current regulations embody a worldview that reflects the closing days of the Cold War,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita at the University of Mississippi School of Law, who called the licensing system today “onerous.”

She cautioned, though, against making wholesale changes to that 1992 law, arguing that many reforms can be implemented through changes in regulation instead. “There are a lot of things in there in addition to commercial remote sensing that might come into play under a political process,” she said of amending current law.

A provision of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, signed into law last November, requires the Commerce Department to prepare a report examining “statutory updates” for commercial remote sensing licensing. The law directs the department to “take into account the need to protect national security while maintaining United States private sector leadership in the field” in that report.

The report is due to Congress in November, but some members are concerned that it will be delayed. Babin noted that ACCRES has not met in over a year, which means it’s not able to formally provide input into the report. “This is unacceptable,” Babin said. “Slow-rolling and obstructing this law is not only an affront to Congress and the president, but also to the American people.”

NOAA was not invited to testify at the hearing, which some Democratic members of the committee criticized. “It would have been helpful to have invited NOAA to appear here today,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), the subcommittee’s ranking member. “They are not the enemy. They are our partners in trying to figure this out for the future.” Babin later said NOAA would be invited to a future hearing after submitting the report.

While NOAA was not at the hearing, it did announce in a Federal Register notice Sept. 7 that it would convene a meeting of ACCRES Sept. 21 in Chantilly, Virginia. NOAA called the meeting, the notice stated, in part so that the committee can “complete its required consultation on the report” required by last year’s act.

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...