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Commercial remote sensing industry wins change to resolution limits

In recent years, the commercial remote sensing industry has been lobbying the federal government to change rules that prevented companies from selling imagery with resolutions sharper than 50 centimeters per pixel. DigitalGlobe in particular argued that its current and planned satellites could already provide imagery with better resolutions than that, and that the capabilities of foreign systems not subject to US resolution limits could it make less competitive in the commercial market. It appears that, this week, DigitalGlobe got its wish.

The company announced Wednesday that it received notice from the Commerce Department that the agency had approved revised resolution limits for existing and future spacecraft. The company’s current satellites will, effective immediately, be able to sell images as sharp as technically possible by them: 41-centimeter resolution for GeoEye-1 and 46 centimeters for WorldView-2. Imagery from the company’s WorldView-3 satellite, slated for launch in August, can be sold at resolutions of as sharp as 25 centimeters starting six months after it’s declared operational. (The spacecraft is capable of 31-centimeter imagery, according to the company.) GeoEye-2, a satellite developed for GeoEye prior to its acquisition by DigitalGlobe, will also be able to provide similarly sharp imagery when it’s launched at an unspecified future date.

“Our customers will immediately realize the benefits of this updated regulation, as for the first time, we will be able to make our very best imagery available to the commercial market,” DigitalGlobe CEO Jeffrey Tarr said in a company statement announcing the revised resolution limits. He also thanked Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and officials from the Departments of Defense and State, and the intelligence community, for “this forward-leaning change to our nation’s policy.”

Curiously, those officials are silent about the change. The Commerce Department, which regulates commercial remote sensing satellites, made no public announcement of the change, nor did other administration officials. It’s thus not clear if the revised resolution limits apply only to DigitalGlobe or to any US-licensed satellite company. In practice, no other company licensed by the US government is operating or developing satellites that could run afoul of the earlier 50-centimeter limit. Skybox Imaging, the company that Google announced Tuesday it was acquiring for $500 million, can provide images as sharp as 90 centimeters, according to company literature.

Earlier this year, some government officials signaled a willingness to accept revised resolution limits for commercial remote sensing satellites. At a conference in April, both Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency director Letitia Long said the intelligence community supported changes to allow companies to sell higher-resolution satellite imagery.

13 comments to Commercial remote sensing industry wins change to resolution limits

  • Hiram

    Does anyone know where the original 50cm limit came from? What determined that particular number? I have to assume some perhaps confidential national security asset can be recognized with 50cm resolution, but maybe that’s not important any longer. I guess it would also be interesting to know what the marketing thrust for the higher resolution is. Who exactly is desperate for resolution better than 50cm?

    • Egad

      This doesn’t exactly answer your questions, but see http://www.fas.org/irp/imint/niirs.htm for examples of the kind of imagery tasks that can be accomplished with various resolutions. The current discussions seem to pertain to the NIIRS 6 – NIIRS 7 range.

      • Hiram

        Thank you. That’s very interesting. A curious mix of credible national defense threats with things like “identifying space tires” and “identify individual rail ties”. Now, to some extent, national security doesn’t want to tell us exactly what they don’t want us to be able to see, but there is a delicate balance between what commerce and safety needs us to see and what national defense doesn’t want us to see. Still wondering what drives commercial and safety needs in these sub-meter size ranges. Who hugely profits with <0.5m imagery, and why? Now, there is no lack of generic info on the many and varied uses of satellite imaging (e.g. http://www.satimagingcorp.com/applications/) but my question is specific to <0.5m resolution.

        • Egad

          but my question is specific to <0.5m resolution

          That certainly is an interesting question in the present context.

          Earlier, the real spy satellites needed as much resolution as they could get for technical intelligence from denied areas — e.g., the exact diameters of missile bodies, antenna designs, etc. — and to counter denial and deception measures. (IMO and BTW, these quite legitimate needs came to be over-emphasized at the expense of area search and general intelligence capabilities. But that’s another rant.)

          Today? Who indeed does need few-decimeter-level resolution? 50 cm I can understand, but better than that leaves me scratching my head a bit.

          • Hiram

            Well, what this is about is the government not wanting U.S. firms to offer the highest resolution imaging. No reason that other countries can’t get that imaging for people, at a price. Is Commerce now admitting that other countries can achieve that capability, so it makes no sense to continue to restrict U.S. providers?

            But the commercial applications still elude me. I guess it would be interesting to hear what GeoEye and DigitalGlobe marketing departments are spinning. As in, here’s why you need to buy this stuff from us, and why it’ll make money for you when you do. It is neither easy nor cheap to provide this resolution. It comes down to telescope aperture, and you need large apertures to do it. Large telescopes in space aren’t cheap. 0.3m resolution at 600 km altitude at visible wavelengths is a 1m telescope. The WV-3 spacecraft is 5.7m long and 2.5m in diameter, and 3mT according to their website.

    • I am a GIS Specialist and I can tell you who is demanding better than 50cm resolution! EVERYONE who works in Geospatial technologies wants and needs this! Local governments, Emergency Management, State governments and federal agencies (USDOT, USDA, US Census Bureau, etc.) ALL currently use aerial imagery at anywhere from 15 cm to 40 cm resolution to create a large portion of their map data. Previously, this imagery was typically collected via piloted aircraft with precision imaging equipment and was then registered to the ground control monuments and ortho-rectified for cartographic use! This method of aerial image collection is quite expensive, but extremely necessary for accurate mapping of most common map features, such as roads, highways, rivers, creeks, building structures, power poles, storm inlets, manholes, signage, traffic signals, RR crossings, etc. Satellite imagery has typically NOT been used for this purpose due to resolution limits! Now that satellite companies can legally collect and distribute this high resolution data, the cost of acquiring this data will drop immensely! This will undoubtedly result in a MASSIVE increase in demand for previously unavailable high resolution satellite data!
      Believe me, EVERYONE using GIS technology will want this new data immediately!

      • Hiram

        Thank you. There was no question in my mind that this info was desperately needed, but it wasn’t completely clear why. Now, I would suggest that for mapping roads, highways, and rivers, 50+ cm resolution would do a pretty good job. But the other stuff seems a more credible use. Now for storm inlets, manholes, signage and traffic signals, you’d think that a visit there by a surveyor holding a map and a pencil would be a comparatively inexpensive option. But maybe not. It’s the storm inlet that’s hopelessly clogged, or the manhole with a lock on it that remote sensing won’t help much with.

  • Any limit on imaging resolution will be ignored by America’s adversaries. The idea is an anachronism.

    • pathfinder_01

      “Any limit on imaging resolution will be ignored by America‚Äôs adversaries. The idea is an anachronism.”

      Not all countries have spy satellites. An adversary could simply buy the images and plan an strike.

  • Hiram

    WSJ the other day had an article about this, and talked a little about applications. Apparently <50cm imagery can be used for crop identification, and whether a field had actually been planted. Also, interestingly enough, this resolution gives some insight into the makes of cars in parking lots. So if you're trying to scope out the economic posture of people parking there, this would help. It won't distinguish between two kinds of luxury cars, but will make it clear whether they are SUVs, minis, or pickup trucks. Apparently this resolution is very handy for monitoring production in the mining, energy, and agriculture industries. I suppose of you can resolve barrels, that can tell you a lot about production. Still pretty hand-wavey, but better than I've seen in other outlets.

  • numbers_guy101

    I’m reminded of that old 2001 report here>
    handle.dtic.mil/100.2/ADA426248

    To quote-
    “A massive and significant change to the administration of the commercial remote sensing industry is in order. The U.S. should lift all restrictions beyond those associated with mainstream trade practices. The current regulatory restrictions do not recognize that this industry is beyond control. Continued impediments to the development of the U.S. domestic industry will simply cause customers to seek imagery outside the U.S. This will put U.S. leadership in imagery technology at risk for no apparent reason. The capability to provide detailed imagery, without market restrictions, already lies in uncontrolled commercial enterprises overseas. The U.S. needs to make fundamental psychological adjustments to recognize that total visibility is a fact. If we embrace this truth and take prudent measures to work within a transparent world, the U.S. can continue to lead in technology development while simultaneously protecting national interests and security.”

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