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.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has finalized a list of exclusion zones for two types of advanced remote sensing technologies that could help end a long-running logjam for licensing of commercial systems using those techniques.

In a presentation at an Aug. 24 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES) here, two officials said the Defense Department had approved a list of geographic exclusion areas where commercial shortwave infrared and nighttime imaging would not be permitted, and provided it to the Commerce Department, where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration licenses commercial remote sensing systems.

“There is significant risk to military operations as it pertains to the commercial sale of shortwave infrared and imagery that is taken at high resolution at night,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark Cobos, who leads space policy efforts on the Joint Staff. That led to a decision last year, he said, to develop geographic exclusion areas and licensing conditions for commercial systems that seek to use those technologies.

The effort to develop that list of exclusion areas started in January, he said. “The areas that we developed had to be the most limited geographic areas possible, and that it would address the considerations of industry and be very judicious about the nominations we entertained.”

Cobos said that this project initially received “about 5,000 nominations” from various sources in the national security community. That included “lengthy” lists from some four-star officers “because their interpretation of the national security risks was very significant.”

The review process whittled that list down to the “most correct areas that are truly national security risks” for such imagery, he said, including a requirement that a four-star combatant commander or service chief write a memo justifying each area included.

The final list includes 68 exclusion areas for shortwave infrared imaging and 83 for nighttime imaging, which are mostly overlapping. Some of the areas, Cobos said, are as small as a “couple of football fields,” while others are larger. “They are primarily military installations where we conduct training, where we prepare to go to war, where we are employing our force in direct preparation for a mission overseas, or a location overseas where they are currently operating.”

The list has been approved by the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and the Secretary of Defense, and has been provided to the Department of Commerce for use by NOAA in developing licensing conditions for affected systems. The Defense Department, while planning to update the list of exclusion zones on an annual basis, does not plan to publicly release it.

“The list itself is unclassified,” said Josef Koller, senior space policy advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, but added he expected licensees to treat that information as proprietary. “I would not like to see those [locations] in SpaceNews.”

Once in place, the list could help clear the way for NOAA licensing of systems using shortwave infrared or nighttime imaging. DigitalGlobe applied for a license in 2013 to provide high-resolution shortwave infrared imaging from an instrument on its WorldView-3 satellite, launched in 2014, but has yet to receive a decision, much to the frustration of the company and advocates of the overall industry.

Licensing reform

At the ACCRES meeting, Koller said the development of the exclusion lists for shortwave infrared and nighttime imagery was part of a broader effort by the Defense Department, and the federal government in general, to improve the commercial remote sensing licensing process.

“I see that shift going towards more transparency. We hear your concerns, we hear your issues, and we are taking those very seriously in the department,” he said.

He cited as another example a recently updated memorandum of understanding involving the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce and Interior, as well as the intelligence community, to expedite the interagency review of commercial remote sensing licensing applications. “We’re already seeing an improvement in the average of processing time and approval timelines,” he said. “That’s indicative of what’s coming down the road.”

In a presentation earlier in the meeting, Tahara Dawkins, director of NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office, said her office had issued 10 new licenses so far this year with an average processing time of 96 days, versus 108 days last year.

That improvement, though, has not deterred legislative efforts for commercial remote sensing reform. The House Science Committee favorably reported in June the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. That legislation includes provisions to reform commercial remote sensing licensing, including automatic approval of applications in 90 days unless explicitly denied.

The bill has the support of many commercial remote sensing companies and industry organizations. “The two items that are of most importance for regulatory reforms are predictability in licensing and an open and transparent process,” said Charity Weeden, senior director of policy at the Satellite Industry Association (SIA). “These key reforms are by and large addressed by the Free Enterprise Act, and it’s the reason why SIA lent its support to this part of the legislation.”

An ACCRES subcommittee said at the meeting that it recommended the full committee endorse the bill, adding it sought clarification on some elements of the bill, such as how NOAA’s existing licensing office would be incorporated into the Office of Space Commerce as directed by the bill.

NOAA itself has not taken a stand on the legislation, which has yet to be taken up by the full House. “We are still assessing the act,” Mark Paese, deputy assistant administrator for satellite and information systems at NOAA, said at the meeting.

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...