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Congress investigates years-long delay in DigitalGlobe satellite data-sales OK
Colorado-based satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe Inc. has been waiting for federal government permission to sell high-resolution data captured by its newest satellite, more than two years after its application was supposed to be decided.
Ranking members of the Science, Space and Technology committee in the U.S. House of Representatives are demanding to know by June 24 why the Westminster-based company (NYSE: DGI) has received no answer when agency rules require one in 120 days.
DigitalGlobe’s stalled application to sell detailed infrared data gathered by its WorldView-3 satellite suggests a broader problem, says Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe founder and CTO.
“This is just the latest in a long line of regulatory decisions – and indecisions – that have hindered U.S. industry’s competitiveness in the global commercial remote sensing market,” Scott told the trade publication SpaceNews.
U.S. regulation is slowing innovation in the domestic satellite imaging industry to the point that the nation has fallen behind in a field it pioneered, Scott says.
“Overly restrictive regulations prevented the emergence of a domestic radar imaging satellite industry, and Canadian, German, and Italian firms now dominate this market.”
DigitalGlobe is the lone commercial satellite imagery company in the U.S., selling images and data to online mapping companies, industry and for declassified intelligence that can be shared by the U.S. with foreign governments and aid agencies.
It launched its WorldView-3 satellite into orbit in 2014, gaining the ability to offer high-resolution data that was unprecedented for civilian satellites.
WorldView-3 can see through haze and clouds, helping firefighters identify hot spots in remote fire zones. It can also help identify types of vegetation and the surface mineral composition of hard-to-reach parts of the planet.
Those capabilities are popular with oil and gas, mining and other companies involved in natural resources exploration, said DigitalGlobe spokesman Turner Brinton, and being able to provide even more detail would help the business be able to offer clients even more useful information.
The laws that regulate commercial satellite imagery and data were set in 1992, just as the new industry was emerging.
The rules require that companies get licenses to sell information and images beyond a certain level of detail as a way to prevent potential harm to national security. The licensing process lets military and civilian officials sign off on the sale of higher-resolution data.
DigitalGlobe has been able since early 2015 to sell 30-centimeter resolution imagery from WorldView-3 — pictures from space detailed enough to show power lines and manhole covers in the street — a resolution previously not allowed to be sold.
But instruments on the WorldView-3 satellite also gather high-resolution infrared data that the company also sought permission to sell, applying for that license in 2013 ahead of WorldView-3’s launch.
The satellite’s infrared sensor can gather data covering 3.7 meters per-pixel, but the U.S. government allows sale of no finer resolution than 7.5 meters.
The company’s clients would find more detailed information more useful, Brinton said.
NOAA was supposed to have a determination on the application within 120 days. It’s been almost three years, and DigitalGlobe hasn’t received a final answer.
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, the Golden Democrat who represents DigitaGlobe’s district in Congress, sits on the House space and technology committee.
Last year he crafted part of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, passed in November, that’s specifically meant to update rules surrounding the commercial satellite industry.
The legislation also aims to understand whether the licensing workload within federal agencies is slowing down innovation in the commercial space industry.