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Remote Sensing

Remote Sensing Satellite Market Pits Industry Against U.S. Policy

From OE Reports Number 185 - May 1999
30 May 1999, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.6199905.0001

Sometimes called "can-openers in the sky" because of their ability to reveal all, remote sensing satellites have become an object of great debate during the past decade. These high-tech cameras floating in low-earth orbits can reveal the health of crops or the best path for new roads, track urban expansion, or even save lives during disaster relief, and so much more.

Figure 1. These 1-m resolution aerial images are representative of IKONOS 1 satellite imagery. High-resolution imagery products reveal important information and visual characteristics about urban and rural areas. The image of downtown Denver and Denver's Mile High Stadium (left) reveals information useful for the news media, emergency response organizations, travel agencies, city planning departments, and transportation entities to support every-day business practices. The false-color image of a field in Moses Lake, Washington (right) illustrate crop stress -- either as a result of disease, infestation, poor irrigation, or other causes. Information about the precise location of a crop's problem areas helps growers apply treatments -- fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation -- only to the damaged areas, rather than treating the entire field.

In some senses, however, their enormous utility is giving U.S. government officials cause for worry. The U.S., which has been a proponent of "open skies" since before the Kennedy-era, is taking a very different stance regarding the latest generation of high-resolution imaging satellites. Under the direction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), and with foreign policy and military input from the Departments of State and Defense, the U.S. is trying to enforce regulations that give government unprecedented control over commercial remote satellite projects.

As the launch date for several of the latest 1-m resolution generation imaging satellites nears, the U.S. government finds itself still wrestling with first amendment rights, military concerns, and foreign policy issues. As the debate continues into its twelfth year, this latest round of technological marvels is bringing the debate to a head. Many industry experts familiar with the drama say that U.S. regulation is not only impossible, but a short-sighted response that could result in the U.S. following, instead of leading, a multibillion dollar global market.

Precedent for consternation

Although companies such as Space Imaging (Thornton, CO), Orbital Sciences (Dulles, VA) and EarthWatch (Longmont, CO) are, for the most part, quiet regarding the impact and justification for U.S. regulatory policies (after all the U.S. government will be both the licensing agency and a large customer), experts in the remote sensing field say they are confused by the U.S. regulatory debate.

Before the United Nations in 1986, the U.S. championed the "open skies" rule as it applies to remote sensing satellites. Defeating a truculent Soviet Union, the U.S. pressed the UN to create international laws that state no country has the right of "prior consent" regarding satellite images over foreign territories.

At that time, high-resolution remote sensing satellites were still under government control. As the Cold War wound to a close, however, the superpowers' military budgets shrank, prompting governments to release the classified remote sensing technology to the commercial sector. In theory, the release of the technology would mean that governments would still have access to satellite images without having to bear the full financial burden of satellite development, launch, and operation. Since that time, many countries -- including the U.S., Russia, France, and India -- have privatized satellite remote sensing technology to privately-owned companies.

In response to aggressive foreign development and deployment of imaging satellites, a 1988 presidential directive encouraged U.S. commercial space development. This position was reaffirmed and focused by President Clinton's 1994 presidential "decision directive" that increased the maximum resolution of commercial satellites to 1-m while stating that the U.S. government supports deployment of commercial remote sensing satellite endeavors. This resolution limit has since been done away with completely. At the time, sources within the Department of State claimed that this would ensure that the satellite imagery "store" in the U.S. would stay open and competitive.

Despite the presidential directive, other government agencies -- in defense, foreign affairs, and intelligence -- have questioned the wisdom of making high-resolution satellite images, radar images, and hyperspectral images available to anyone with the financial wherewithal. As a result, licensing rules in the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Act and subsequent policy debates conducted by NOAA and other government agencies give the U.S. government "shutter control" power when military operations "may be compromised" or when foreign countries request the U.S. government to enforce "prior consent" on U.S. companies to keep them from imaging foreign territory.

Figure 2. Comparative resolution. The 1-m resolution image of San Francisco Airport (top) illustrates the high-resolution, high-accuracy imagery of the future 1-m resolution satellite imagery from IKONOS, to be launched in this Spring. The 5-m and 25-m representations of the same area (left and above) illustrate the lower-resolution imagery that is available from existing satellite sources -- the Indian Remote Sensing IRS-1C and -1D satellites and the U.S. Landsat.
The Prior-restraint debate

The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) have jointly renounced the government's right to shutter control and prior restraint, citing first amendment issues related to the freedom of the press. Governmental powers set out in the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Act gives the Secretary of Commerce, with advice from the secretaries of defense and state, the right to stop imaging or distribution of images of a particular area when "when national security, international obligations, or foreign policy interests may be compromised."

According to the two media groups, the government's policies on shutter control and the doctrine of prior restraint as it pertains to satellite imaging could violate several Supreme Court decisions in regards to free speech, especially in matters of foreign policy. The rules contain no clear guidelines for the government's shutter control and therefore could be misused. They suggest that a "Clear and Present Danger" litmus test be added to the NOAA regulations that would require a government agency to prove before a court that an immediate danger to U.S. military or national defense exists before either Secretary could exercise shutter control.

In statements submitted to NOAA regarding the regulations, the groups go on to say, "if not revised, NOAA's rules inevitably will 'chill' willingness to invest substantial sums in developing domestic remote sensing capabilities...Because the U.S. is the only country considering imposing such broad restrictions on the licensing and use of satellites capable of producing high resolution imagery, the proposed rules threaten to cede the U.S. advantage to foreign nations that are developing such systems."

John Baker of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute (Washington, D.C.) sharpened the issues. "The problem is that the industry wants firm guidelines on shutter control and the government wants as much flexibility as possible. ... And that makes it somewhat difficult for the firms that are trying to stir up investors and reliable customers. I don't think we're going to get a clear idea of how shutter control works until the satellites are up there and challenges present themselves."

The U.S. government has already exercised this power by precluding U.S. satellite companies from imaging Israel at 1-m resolution, a long-standing U.S. ally. Interestingly, this debate among U.S. experts is exacerbated by the Israeli government's recent business venture with U.S. company Core Software Technology (Pasadena, CA) to launch a 1-m high-resolution imaging satellite. "Israel's joint venture with Core Software has certainly muddied the water. Having that in the background doesn't help," added Baker.

The RTNDA and NAB point out that the Israeli exemption sets a dangerous precedent because it opens the doors for other countries to request U.S. satellite imaging exemptions based on potential national security threats. "It's silly to have restrictions when they aren't going to be honored by anyone else. The Israeli exemption, for example, isn't going to make much difference in the long term," said Ann Florini of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Washington, D.C.). "People [in the U.S. government] are either having second thoughts, or aren't aware that prior consent lost and it lost a long time ago."

Focusing on the market

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the regulatory debate has yet to become public. According to Florini, who has studied the transparency issue at length, remote sensing satellites place two constitutional rights at odds with one another: namely the right to privacy and freedom of the press. Transparency refers to the once secret or hidden actions becoming public -- the global trend of an individual's, group's and institution's right to know, whether it be about their government's actions or environmental policies of a corporation.

"There's a purely practical consideration that the best resolution of these satellites is around 1-m, and it doesn't seem commercially likely that it will get much better than that. [That means] you can't spy on your neighbor's individual activities, but the more concern is for businesses and how their competitors can get information on business activities," explained Florini.

Although corporate espionage is not likely to be found among the brochures of the various satellite imaging companies, a close cousin -- military intelligence -- is. According to many experts, until the first 1-m satellite images become commercially available, its impossible to know all the potential markets for this kind of information. "There's no market because no on has a high-resolution sensor yet," said Kevin O'Connell of the Rand Corporation (Washington, DC). "But I do think there's a significant difference between 5- and 1-meter [technology]."

According to Brian Soliday, vice president of sales and marketing for Space Imaging, today's successful markets include agricultural, oil, and environmental arenas, civil government, defense and intelligence, real estate and insurance. Soliday, who distributes images from Indian, Canadian, and U.S. satellites, among others, believes that 1-m resolutions will open up completely new vistas for satellite imagery.

Whatever future growth might entail, few can doubt that satellite imaging is big business. Commercial satellite imaging companies generated $2 billion in revenues last year, and market analysts estimated that number will rise to $7 billion by the year 2003.

Foreign competition may be the only way to lift U.S. regs

Despite some indications that "shutter control" and prior restraint issues may not go away in the near future, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for U.S. satellite imaging companies.

By the end of this spring, U.S. commercial satellite companies should have a chance to comment on the latest NOAA regulations governing the industry, according to Charles Wooldridge, NOAA remote sensing licensing coordinator. Wooldridge confirmed that NOAA has received numerous sets of comments listing concerns with the U.S. government's right to shutter control and prior restrain, however, he declined to comment on whether these concerns will have any effect on the latest set of regulations.

"We haven't sent the new version out of the agency yet and so, quite frankly, we haven't finalized that yet," he said. According to Wooldridge, until the regulations are released and confirmed, the existing code developed in 1987 and modified in 1992 and later in 1994, is still in effect.

Wooldridge did address comments that the U.S. stance on "open skies" has changed since the United Nations adopted six rules governing satellite imaging in 1986. Misunderstandings arise, he said, when people forget that the U.S. always employed a caveat in their push with open skies to exclude countries with national security concerns, foreign policy interests, or other policy obligations. "Even the UN principles themselves say that countries have legitimate rights and interests and that those take precedence over [the UN] principles," Wooldridge explained. "Those rights can be defined in terms of national security or foreign policy issues, and therefore we do not agree that interruption of commercial service is inconsistent with the UN remote sensing principles."

Foreign competition could change U.S. regs

Wooldridge did add, however, that as foreign powers catch up to U.S. satellite remote sensing capabilities (such as the 1-m imaging satellites planned for launch this year), that NOAA would re-evaluate matters such as the Israeli 1-m exemption and other regulatory issues. "We would certainly have to factor in when other satellites come up. We would have to think what good does it do us to put limitations on U.S. systems when foreign countries can do it anyway," Wooldridge said.

R. Winn Hardin
R. Winn Hardin is a technology and science writer based in Fairbury, NE.