Industry welcomes new Commerce Dept norms for remote sensing sector

commerce dept norms
Courtesy Maxar

Commercial satellite players in the US have welcomed the Commerce Department move to ease restrictions on remote sensing regulations. On May 19, the US Department of Commerce released new regulations to improve the licensing process for private satellite remote sensing operations in the country in a move that it sees as helping ensure continued US leadership in a critical commercial space industry.

The new final rules are aimed at increasing openness and transparency in the licensing process and eliminates most restrictions on how licensed remote sensing systems may be operated. This includes limits on the resolution of imagery, and also prohibits the government from imposing additional conditions after a license has been issued. What is most interesting is that the guidelines require the government to assess the remote sensing data already planned or available in the market to determine whether any conditions should be applied to any US company.

The rule also eliminates the special conditions in place for systems like synthetic aperture radar (SAR), shortwave infrared or nighttime imaging. The new regulations also recognize the growing role of Artificial Intelligence, Cloud computing, and other advanced technologies in extracting unique information from remote sensing, and thus applies only to the remote sensing instrument and components that support its operation. This streamlined regulatory approach is aimed at helping US companies stay ahead in the rapidly evolving global market for remote sensing services.

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The final rule comes nearly a year after a draft version last year faced severe criticism from the industry, and is seen as a result of extensive discussions with US industry and other federal agencies, reflecting a greater understanding of the speed, direction, growing importance, and economic value of commercial remote sensing data.

“The streamlined remote sensing rules reflect the Trump Administration’s commitment to advance American leadership throughout a diverse array of commercial space industries,” Wilbur Ross, US Secretary of Commerce, said in a statement. “We heard the message from industry loud and clear that previous regulations were too restrictive and were preventing the realization of unique economic opportunities from commercial satellite remote sensing systems. I am grateful to President Trump, Vice President Pence, the National Space Council, NOAA, and the Office of Space Commerce for their leadership in bringing these new rules to fruition.”

“American industry is driving innovation in commercial remote sensing at an increasingly rapid rate. These streamlined and updated rules are critical to ensuring US regulations keep up with the speed of innovation and ensure the United States remains the flag of choice for commercial space businesses,” said Dr Scott Pace, Deputy Assistant to US President and Executive Secretary of the National Space Council.

What the commercial industry thinks

“Maxar is pleased with the significant update to the Commerce Department’s remote sensing regulations, which relaxes many of the barriers that have held U.S. companies back. We look forward to receiving updated licenses that embody the forward-leaning principles espoused in the preamble to the new rules,” Dan Jablonsky, CEO, Maxar, one of the largest commercial remote sensing operators in the US, said. Maxar operates the industry leading high-resolution imaging satellites and is currently working on the WorldView Legion constellation.

“These streamlined, forward-looking regulations represent a philosophical shift in striking a balance between US technological innovation, competition from foreign actors and national security,” small sat major Planet said in a statement. Planet operates the range of small satellites in Dove and Skysat constellations and is the only company to measure every inch of Earth 24×7.

Overall, the industry expressed the view that the overarching goal of the new guidelines was to find a new balance when it comes to remote sensing regulations, and a mandate for US remote sensing companies to accelerate new technology developments.

“In general, I view these proposed changes as quite encouraging for the space industry — primarily because I expect they will push forward new innovations and also allow US companies to be more competitive in the global market,” said Emiliano Kargieman, CEO and Founder, of Satellogic, which has developed a scalable earth observation platform with the ability to remap the entire planet at both high-frequency and high-resolution. 

Echoed SkyWatch CEO James Slifierz. “We believe the revamped regulations will help the industry as a whole. We really look forward to seeing what new applications will be developed with these new datasets. We can avoid situations where US lawmakers try and play catch up with the speed of innovation, adding costs and delays to new constellations going up and stifling the growth of the industry.”

The three tier approach

The new rules mean that if a satellite imagery can be bought in a foreign country, US satellite companies have the right to sell it, a departure from the strict control imposed so far by the Department of Department, the State Department and the Intelligence Community.

For instance, when data is captured by an American company and sold through a Canadian platform to a Dutch client for their South African customers, things can get really complicated, explained Slifierz. And, with the expected increase in the volume of satellite data to be generated daily in the future, Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning applications will play an increasingly larger role in how data is used. The revisited regulation should help data sellers and buyers across the globe. 

The new guidelines do away with the earlier draft proposal to classify applications as “low risk” or “high risk” from a national security perspective and instead uses a three-tier approach.

“This [the earlier] rules worked under the assumption that remote sensing systems would be regulated so as to prevent them from causing harm to national security: The more risk a system posed to national security, the more restrictive its license would be,” the commerce department said in the rule. 

The industry had argued the earlier rule would have classified almost all commercial satellite companies as “high risk”.

The final guidelines categorizes applicants based on the degree to which the unenhanced data to be generated by their proposed system are already available. Tier 1 applicant applicants who would face minimum restrictions are those capable of producing unenhanced data substantially the same as unenhanced data available from sources not regulated by Commerce, such as foreign sources.

Tier 2 would classify all those applicants who are capable of producing unenhanced data that are substantially the same as unenhanced data available from US sources only. Tier 3, which faces the maximum stringent conditions, categorizes applicants capable of producing unenhanced data that are substantially the same as no available unenhanced data — that is the applicant has no competitors, foreign or domestic.

“In short, the final rule represents a philosophical shift away from a purely risk-based approach. No longer will the US Government assess systems based on the risk they may pose to national security and burden them accordingly to protect against such risk,” the department stated in the rule. “Instead, the U.S. Government will shift more of the burden of protecting national security to itself, focusing on mitigating the risk posed by the global remote sensing industry,” the department said.

“This is because Commerce cannot prevent the harm that such systems might cause to national security, regardless of how strictly they are regulated, because substantially the same unenhanced data are available from sources outside Commerce’s control.”

The new rule, however, has no bearing on US government remote sensing capabilities or the data policy regarding the availability of data or products therefrom, such as Landsat and NOAA’s operational satellites. Only private remote sensing space systems operated by all other entities — commercial, non-profit, academic, or otherwise – will be under the purview of this regulation.

The Department of Commerce (Commerce), through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), licenses the operation of private remote sensing space systems under the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992. NOAA’s existing regulations implementing the Act were last updated in 2006.


Better regulations to benefit space industry: Dr Scott Pace

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