Emerging Tech

Satellite Providers Seek Rule Change to Sell Sharper Images on the Open Market

This April 15, 2012 satellite image shows a parade held to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birthday in Pyongyang, North Korea.

This April 15, 2012 satellite image shows a parade held to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birthday in Pyongyang, North Korea. // DigitalGlobe/AP file photo

Satellite images seem to be everywhere in the modern world from the weather channel to Google maps.

They tell researchers the thickness of smog over Beijing; they tell U.S. intelligence agencies where Iran might be processing nuclear weapons and they can tell big box retailers how many cars are in their competitors’ parking lots.

The ubiquity of satellite images might seem to be bound only by the satellites’ own technical capacity. But the limits on satellite images recently have been drawn by policy rather than technology. For more than a decade, commercial satellite providers have been barred from selling images with a resolution greater than 50 centimeters, largely because of national security concerns that providers say are long outdated.

That limit, which means one pixel in the satellite image must equal 50 centimeters or more on Earth’s surface, was a distant dream when the rule was approved by the Commerce Department in 2000. At that point, satellite cameras could only manage an 80 centimeter resolution.

In recent years, however, providers have launched a new generation of equipment that can surpass that limit, including a satellite that can collect images with a 25 centimeter resolution the company DigitalGlobe plans to launch next year.

U.S. satellite operators with advanced cameras must either blur these images when they sell them on the open market or only sell the sharper images to a handful of U.S. government defense and intelligence agencies that are allowed to purchase them.

DigitalGlobe petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May for permission to sell images at a 25 centimeter resolution. The sharper images could be used by companies such as Esri and Google to create more detailed digital maps, the company’s founder and Chief Technology Officer Walter Scott said.

The U.S. Forest Service could also use the images to get a better picture of where different types of vegetation start and stop and the Coast Guard and other agencies could gain a better understanding of the nation’s shoreline, according to Lawrie Jordan, director of imagery for Esri, the government’s largest supplier of digital mapping systems.

The higher resolution images would also make it easier and cheaper for the U.S. military to distinguish between vegetation and camouflaged tarp, he said.  

The new standard would keep U.S. satellite companies competitive with other nations, including France and Russia, which have asked their governments for permission to sell sharper satellite images.

“I want America to maintain its lead in technology and particularly to maintain our lead in the high ground in space,” Jordan said. “Once upon a time [space] was a very thinly populated area. It was just us and a few other countries. Now everyone’s in space, but we’re still the leader and I think we need to stay the leader.”

NOAA told DigitalGlobe it would need longer than the standard 120 day period to evaluate the request and to gather feedback from other agencies such as the State and Defense departments, but hasn’t spoken further about the petition, Scott said.

A NOAA spokesman said the agency could not discuss DigitalGlobe’s request in advance of its official response because of the danger of revealing any proprietary information in the request. The petition itself is sealed.

Scott and Jordan said they’re not aware of any significant domestic opposition to increased resolution from privacy groups or other quarters, largely because the proposed 25 centimeter resolution is still too broad to identify individuals. It’s also far less clear than aerial images, which can achieve resolutions of just a centimeter or two.

That claim seemed to be borne out by Nextgov calls to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other privacy groups, none of which had formed a specific position opposing the change, though they noted they had not looked at the issue closely.

“Even at a 20 centimeter resolution, you can’t recognize people from space,” Scott said. “They look like blobs really. So there’s not the level of concern people have, frankly, about the ubiquity of cellphone cameras.”

Scott says he thinks any resistance to the new resolution standard is a holdover from an earlier era when cameras weren’t ubiquitous and when the U.S. controlled the majority of the world’s satellites.

“In world in which there are so many high resolution satellites that are not controlled by the U.S. government, this feels a lot like closing the barn door after the cows are out in the next country,” he said.

The new resolution may make satellite images more competitive with aerial images in some cases where extremely high resolution isn’t necessary, Jordan said. Satellite images are typically much cheaper than aerial images and satellites can shift position rapidly, moving from North America to South America in just about 20 minutes, he said.

That will likely open up more opportunities for Esri in the private sector, he said, such as helping civil engineers assess the building stock across an entire city or helping insurance companies determine what caused a roof collapse based on recent images.

One of the biggest winners of the change may ironically be U.S. intelligence and defense agencies, Scott and Jordan said. While the U.S. intelligence community operates its own satellites, it also purchases numerous images from Esri, DigitalGlobe and other companies to supplement its own stock. When it purchases images at a higher resolution than the public is allowed to buy, it pays a substantial premium.

About 35 percent of DigitalGlobe’s revenue last year came from a contract with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Scott said.

“If the cost of those images is spread over a larger customer base, then everyone wins,” he said. “The images cost less for everyone and we’re earning more money that we can plow into research and development.”

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