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U.S. could lift commercial satellite imagery restrictions

Apr. 16, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By | AMBER CORRIN   |   Comments
Google Opens New Berlin Office
A visitor to Google's German offices looks at a three-dimensional rendering of French mountains using Google Earth software. Commercial imagery providers could soon be able to provide much higher-resolution images if suggested rule changes take effect. (Adam Berry / Getty Images)

U.S.-based commercial satellite imagery providers could get a break from the government soon if a bid to pull back federal controls on image resolution comes to fruition.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said April 15 that laws limiting the pixel resolution of satellite images have been reviewed, and that officials at intelligence agencies are endorsing reduced restrictions. Lifting the ban would allow U.S. companies to sell higher-resolution imagery than they currently are allowed – which would improve competition with overseas companies, according to some.

“We submitted our recommendation and reached a consensus in the intelligence community, which bodes well for industry,” Clapper said at the GEOINT conference in Tampa.

DigitalGlobe, currently the only American commercial satellite imagery provider, last May put in a formal request to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to have the restrictions lifted. NOAA is under the Commerce Department, the agency responsible for enacting the rules in 2000 amid national security concerns.

The licensing requirements from DigitalGlobe request a 25-centimeter resolution, which means one pixel in the satellite image must equal 25 centimeters or more on Earth’s surface, according to Letitia Long, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Long said the intelligence community approves of the new, 25-centimeter requirement, and that if given the green light at the executive-branch level, the transition from the current 50-centimeter rule could go straight to 25 centimeters, or it could happen in a tiered fashion – 40 centimeters next year, and so on.

“Satellites today have better resolution than [50 centimeters], but they can’t sell below that without a waiver, and they do sell that to some trusted agents . NOAA owns the licensing process and the White House will make the decision on the standard,” Long said April 15 at a GEOINT press conference.

DigitalGlobe contends that the rules are outdated and have hurt business, particularly when it comes to competing with overseas companies.

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“DigitalGlobe argues that the quality of commercial aerial photography — like images available on Google and Bing map websites — is in more than 90 countries at 5-centimeters resolution. These images are taken from an aircraft, not a satellite,” the company said in its request last year.

“We don’t want to disadvantage U.S. industry. It’s definitely both” a marketing and strategic decision, Long said.

It’s a move welcomed by industry.

“DigitalGlobe appreciates the intelligence community’s support for reforms to the current U.S. regulations on the resolution of commercial satellite imagery,” said Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe founder and chief technical officer, according to an Aviation Week report. “We are hopeful that the administration will act promptly on this issue to advance the nation’s commanding lead in this strategically important industry, fuel innovation, and create new high-tech jobs.”

See all of our GEOINT 2013* coverage at the GEOINT 2013* Show Reporter .

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