LOGAN, Utah — Facing increasing pressure from both industry and Congress, the head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency said the federal government is taking steps to streamline the licensing process for commercial remote sensing satellites.

In a keynote address Aug. 7 at the 31st Annual Conference on Small Satellites here, NGA Director Robert Cardillo said he also expected the newly-reconstituted National Space Council to play a role in speeding up the license application review process as more companies and organizations propose small satellite systems for Earth imaging.

Cardillo shared the assessment of others in both industry and government that the sometimes lengthy delays in getting commercial remote sensing licenses from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is caused in large part by the surge in license applications, including from companies planning constellations of satellites or proposing other novel applications that required extended review.

“As everyone knows, the volume, variety and complexity of commercial remote sensing licensing requests continue to grow dramatically,” he said.

Cardillo said NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office had received three times as many applications so far in 2017 as it did in all of 2012. Those applications, he said, came from organizations ranging from companies planning satellite constellations to an elementary school in Idaho developing a cubesat. All have to follow the same licensing process.

“That one-size-fits-all strategy just won’t work in the smallsat boom days here and ahead of us,” he said.

Part of the application process is an interagency review process where several agencies have a chance to examine and raise questions about proposed remote sensing systems. Some in industry have claimed such reviews unnecessarily slow down the licensing process.

As one step to improve the process, Cardillo said that the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce and Interior, as well as the intelligence community, have updated a memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding that interagency review. “Our hope is that this will clarify and, more importantly, expedite the licensing process,” he said.

That MOU, he suggested, was part of a broader regulatory overhaul of commercial remote sensing licensing that will make the process faster and more transparent. “The point of regulatory reform is to get remote sensing concepts reviewed efficiently and quickly, with an initial presumption of ‘yes’ or a clear explanation of U.S. government concerns and how they can be mitigated,” he said.

That reform effort, he said, could be a topic for the new National Space Council. The administration has not publicly indicated yet what specific issues will be a priority for the council, whose first meeting is expected by the end of the summer.

“As the functional manager of [geospatial intelligence], I will work with this council to streamline and simplify the licensing process, so the U.S. government can spend our scarce resources on applications for cutting-edge technology, rather than elementary school cubesats,” Cardillo said.

Congress is already taking steps to reform commercial remote sensing licensing. The House Science Committee favorably reported in June the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, a commercial space regulatory bill. The bill includes provisions for streamlining the licensing process, requiring a decision within 90 days with an automatic approval at the end of that time unless the Commerce Department explicitly rejects an application.

“We’ve had complaints” about how long it takes to get a license, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee and a sponsor of the bill, said in a May interview. “There have been folks who have complained about the length of time before they get permits: months and months, even years.”

Cardillo, in his speech, acknowledged that “Congress is engaged as well” on the topic, but did not weigh in on the House bill or any other proposals. He focused instead on what he envisioned to be the end state of the reform process, regardless of how it is carried out.

“Industry can count on a greatly simplified regulatory process when you’re asking to license a very well understood capability,” he said. “It’s time to bring common sense to government regulation during this smallsat gold rush.”

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...