David Langan, Umbra co-founder and CEO, stands before the patent application for the firm's Articulated Folding Rib Reflector for Concentrating Radiation. Credit: Umbra Lab

WASHINGTON — Satellite imaging companies are embracing long-awaited reforms to commercial remote sensing regulations, although one member of Congress doesn’t think the changes go far enough.

The Commerce Department, which regulates commercial remote sensing satellite systems through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, released a final rule revising commercial remote sensing regulations May 19. The final rule came a year after a draft version of the new regulations and months of interagency discussions.

A key aspect of the revised rules is that they judge systems based on their capabilities with respect to systems outside of NOAA’s jurisdiction, such as those licensed by other nations. Those with similar capabilities will be subject to a “bare minimum of conditions,” with those offering capabilities not otherwise available will face some additional rules.

The rule also eliminates any special requirements for systems like synthetic aperture radar (SAR), shortwave infrared or nighttime imaging, much to the relief of industry. One example is Umbra, which is developing a constellation of SAR satellites capable of producing imagery at a resolution of 25 centimeters.

“We are thrilled to see a final rule that will be infinitely more accommodating to SAR, and will remove arbitrary restrictions on spatial resolution,” David Langan, chief executive of Umbra, told SpaceNews.

Other satellite imaging companies also backed the new regulations. “We are very pleased with the dramatic update to the remote sensing regulations, which relax many of the barriers that have held U.S. companies back,” said Maxar, which operates several high-resolution imaging satellites and is working on the WorldView Legion constellation.

“These streamlined, forward-looking regulations represent a philosophical shift in striking a balance between U.S. technological innovation, competition from foreign actors and national security,” said Planet, which operates the Dove constellation of medium-resolution and SkySat constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites.

One House member, though, offered a mixed assessment. “The Department of Commerce’s new regulations on commercial remote sensing are a step in the right direction,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the House space subcommittee, in a May 21 statement.

However, he added he felt the new regulations didn’t go far enough. Babin was one of the sponsors of the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, a 2017 bill that, among other things, would have updated the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act that serves as the basis for NOAA’s regulation of commercial remote sensing regulation. That bill passed the House in 2018, but was not taken up by the Senate. Babin reintroduced the bill last year, but there has been no action on it since its introduction.

“If American commercial remote sensing companies are to lead in the 21st century, Congress must update the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act to reflect today’s technological landscape,” Babin said. While he said the revised regulations are consistent with what his bill would do, the legislation includes additional measures, such as moving commercial remote sensing licensing to the Office of Space Commerce in the Commerce Department, and elevating its director to a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary post.

Remote sensing companies, while supporting the new rules, caution that an unknown factor is how they will be implemented. “The devil is in the details of how the regulations are ultimately interpreted and applied,” said Langan, in particular the three tiers outlined in the rules that determine how systems are regulated. “If the rule is applied faithfully, as articulated in the text, the tiers will greatly improve U.S. industry’s competitiveness in the global marketplace.”

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...