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U.S. Intel Community Endorses Easing Resolution Limits on Commercial Imagery

“As far as I’m concerned, it certainly bodes well for industry,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper during a question-and-answer session at the Geoint conference. Credit: U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation photo

Updated at 4:14 p.m. EDT

TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. intelligence community has recommended granting U.S. satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe’s request for permission to sell images with resolutions as sharp as 25 centimeters to non-U.S. government customers, senior U.S. officials said.

The recommendation, endorsed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Letitia Long, has been sent to the White House, which has been reviewing DigitalGlobe’s request since last year. A decision had been expected before the end of 2013.

“As far as I’m concerned, it certainly bodes well for industry,” Clapper said during a question-and-answer session at the Geoint conference here.

Clapper did not offer specifics on the recommendation, but in a subsequent press conference here, Long said the intelligence community supports DigitalGlobe’s request to sell 25-centimeter imagery on the open market.   

Long said it was unclear if the transition to a less restrictive regulatory regime would be phased in over a number of years or if there will be additional limitations.  

Under current rules, U.S. satellite imaging companies are allowed to sell imagery with spatial resolutions of better than 50 centimeters to U.S. government customers only. Spatial resolution refers to the size of objects that can be seen in the imagery. 

The biggest and most capable U.S. commercial imaging satellite operator, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., formally asked the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmpspheric Administration, the licensing authority for the industry, for permission to sell 25-centimeter imagery in 2013. Company officials say the current restrictions are outdated and hurt its competitiveness.

Because of the complexity of the matter, Long said, several federal agencies, including the Commerce, State, Defense and Treasury departments, are reviewing DigitalGlobe’s request. NOAA is part of the Commerce Department. Long said she did not know when a final decision will be made.

 “Because there are national security implications, the White House is extremely interested in this,” Long said.

DigitalGlobe currently operates a fleet of five satellites, the most capable of which can collect images with resolutions as sharp as 46 centimeters. But the company’s WorldView-3 satellite, now scheduled to launch in August, will be able to take black-and-white pictures with 31-centimeter resolution.

The intelligence community’s review of the current licensing rules appears to respond to authorization legislation drafted in November by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Specifically, the legislation encouraged the NGA and the director of national intelligence to “promptly review” a licensing request from an unspecified U.S. company to sell electro-optical imagery with 25-centimeter resolution to non-U.S. government customers. “The Committee is concerned that foreign commercial imagery providers may soon be able to provide imagery at or better than the currently allowed commercial U.S. resolution limit of 0.5 meters,” the report accompanying the legislation said.

The NGA’s responsibilities include setting requirements for national security imaging satellites, processing and distributing the data they collect, and procuring and distributing commercial satellite imagery for military and intelligence customers.

Although the NGA is DigitalGlobe’s biggest customer, the company is looking to broaden its non-U.S. government business and has said it could better compete with the aerial photography business if allowed to run higher-resolution data. According to DigitalGlobe, aerial imagery with 30-centimeter resolution is widely available.

“DigitalGlobe appreciates the Intelligence Community’s support for reforms to the current U.S. regulations on the resolution of commercial satellite imagery,” Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe’s founder and chief technical officer, said in an April 15 email. “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.”

Turner Brinton, a spokesman for DigitalGlobe, said the company has not been notified by NOAA about a final decision on the request to sell higher-resolution imagery. 

Tahara Dawkins, director of commercial remote sensing regulatory affairs at NOAA, said in an April 15 email, the agency could not discuss DigitalGlobe’s request.

 

Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN


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