WorldView-4 satellite. Credit: Lockheed Martin artist's concept

SILVER SPRING, Md. — The small office that currently handles licensing of commercial remote sensing systems says it’s made major progress in processing license applications, even as the government moves ahead with broader reforms.

At an April 3 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing here, officials with the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) office, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said they have significantly decreased the average review time for license applications for commercial Earth imaging systems.

Samira Patel, an analyst with the Aerospace Corporation supporting CRSRA, said that in 2015 the average review time for a license application was 210 days, with only 1 of 15 applications completed within the 120-day time limit established in federal law. In 2016, that decreased to an average of 140 days, with 5 of 12 applications reviewed within 120 days.

Last year, Patel said the office completed reviews of license applications on an average of 91 days. Only 2 of 16 applications took more than 120 days, she said, “and that was only by a few days.”

One reason for the decreased review time is the establishment of a memorandum of understanding last year involving the Departments of Commerce, State, Defense and Interior, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, establishing procedures for interagency reviews for commercial remote sensing license applications. That agreement has been invoked 14 times in the last year to enable the processing of license applications “in a timely manner,” she said.

Those review times have decreased even as more organizations contact CRSRA regarding licenses. Patel said that, in 2017, 47 entities contacted the office seeking a determination if their planned system required a license, an increase of 14 percent over 2016. The office found that 19 of them did require a license.

This progress comes as larger reforms are planned for regulation of commercial remote sensing systems. A recommendation approved by the National Space Council at its Feb. 21 meeting called for merging the CRSRA office with the Office of Space Commerce and moving them from NOAA to directly under the Secretary of Commerce. That recommendation also sought to “streamline the existing commercial remote sensing operation licensing regime.”

That recommendation is still pending at the White House. “The recommendations were made to the president back in February, and we’re waiting to get the final approval from the White House on those,” James Uthmeier, senior advisor to the Secretary of Commerce who serves as “regulatory reform officer” for the department, said at the committee meeting.

The Commerce Department was moving ahead with reorganization while waiting for that formal approval, he said. That included the establishment of a “space team” within the department that meets once a week to coordinate space-related issues.

“We’re doing our best to consolidate as much as possible over the next couple of months, and I’d say by the end of the year you’re going to see some real movement,” Uthmeier said.

Some changes will require legislation, and the recommendation called on the Commerce Department to develop a legislative proposal “that would further enable the rapid, efficient, and predictable permitting of commercial remote sensing activities” by July 1.

Uthmeier said that he couldn’t go into details about draft legislation. “We are looking at some proposals in the future,” he said. “I think some of the announcements that the administration needs to make to guide us in one direction or another are still yet to be determined.”

Congress has already been looking into legislative reform of the commercial remote sensing licensing process. The House Science Committee favorably reported last June the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which includes provisions to streamline licensing of such systems. The Senate has been drafting its own commercial space legislation that is also expected to address regulatory reform.

Uthmeier alluded to those bills in his comments. “There are elements of the existing legislation on the Hill that the administration is supportive of,” he said. “There are things with that proposed legislation that pretty much everybody in this room would admit needs some work.” He did not elaborate on what provisions needed changes.

While the outcome of those legislative efforts is uncertain, the current CRSRA office is welcoming the new attention it is receiving. “The Secretary [of Commerce] is really interested in this,” said Tahara Dawkins, director of CRSRA. The upcoming office changes, she said, should help in communications with other government agencies. “I’m excited about the move, and I think a lot of people in the industry are as well.”

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...