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Intelligence Agencies, USSOCOM Signal Support for Higher Resolution Commercial Satellite Imagery

U.S. government agencies have long resisted allowing commercial satellite companies to provide high-resolution images from their satellites to the public. That may be beginning to change. Officials representing a range of government and military organizations voiced their support for overturning the regulation, which currently bars the release of imagery with a resolution of less than 50 centimeters.

“We have reached intelligence community consensus on allowing higher resolution for commercial providers.”

At the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s (USGIF’s) GEOINT 2013* Symposium, a gathering of the satellite and geospatial community, several intelligence agency leaders recommended the change. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper said that any potential change “certainly bodes well for the industry.”

“We have reached intelligence community consensus on allowing higher resolution for commercial providers,” said Clapper.

James Clapper

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sees a consensus in the intelligence community for the lifting of restrictions on commercial satellite companies. USGIF photo

The National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO’s) Betty Sapp, who rarely makes public speeches, sees the lifting of the restrictions as a chance to maximize the resources of the NRO. “We are very supportive of that,” Sapp said regarding the change. Commercial does a majority of aerial collection today. We like that. We like to optimize ours differently. Going down to that additional resolution helps us a lot. We are all for it,” said Sapp. Earlier in her keynote, Sapp praised the work of commercial satellite imagery companies. “The NRO has always been a very strong supporter of the commercial imagery guys. We share hardware, software, test equipment, and new technology. We want to continue that in a much more fundamental way in the future,” Sapp said. “Commercial imagery really is an integral part of the overhead architecture and we want to treat it like that. We want to make sure that whatever they do, we can take full advantage of. We want to make sure we’re not doing anything they can do,” he noted.

“The NRO has always been a very strong supporter of the commercial imagery guys. We share hardware, software, test equipment, and new technology. We want to continue that in a much more fundamental way in the future.”

The support for the change wasn’t limited to intelligence agency officials. U.S. Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM’s) Adm. William H. McRaven voiced his support for change. Calling high-resolution commercial satellite imagery “hugely important,” McRaven went on to explain why he backs the change. “NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] of course provides us exquisite, exquisite imagery, and we use that exquisite imagery every day to make very important tactical and operational decisions. But frankly, our ability to share some of that with our allied partners becomes sometimes problematic. Yet, if I get off-the-shelf commercial imagery that gets close to that – sometimes that is good enough to share with my partners so that we can take a look.

Satellite Image Russian Forces

Commercial satellite companies do share higher resolution images with intelligence agencies and the military, but must degrade imagery before sharing with the public. This DigitalGlobe satellite image, shared by Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), shows a probable Russian airborne or special forces brigade near Yeysk, Russia. Photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe

“The fact of the matter is, this off-the-shelf commercial imagery is very important for us. Very important, because I can share it with anybody. For the most part, to be able to do that with my allied partners, the commercial imagery is very, very helpful. Short of some high-end targets we are looking at, we use that quite liberally,” concluded McRaven.

“The fact of the matter is, this off-the-shelf commercial imagery is very important for us. Very important, because I can share it with anybody. For the most part, to be able to do that with my allied partners, the commercial imagery is very, very helpful.”

The potential change in policy bodes well for companies, such as DigitalGlobe, that have long sought the change. DigitalGlobe in particular, which has a launch scheduled in mid-August of their WorldView-3 satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is a likely beneficiary.

WorldView-3

DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 will have the capability to collect imagery with a 31-centimeter resolution when it launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in mid-August. Current restrictions would bar DigitalGlobe from selling this imagery commercially. DigitalGlobe rendering

The Ball Aerospace-constructed WorldView-3 is capable of collecting imagery with a 31-centimeter resolution, something DigitalGlobe would like to be able to market to clients. DigitalGlobe is currently the only American company that provides commercial satellite imagery. “With WorldView-3 heading closer to launch, we’re excited to continue moving the industry forward with unmatched capabilities and the most advanced commercial satellite constellation in existence,” said Dr. Walter Scott, executive vice president, chief technical officer and founder of DigitalGlobe, in a Ball Aerospace release.

“We’ve submitted our recommendation to the White House and now that will have to go through the interagency and other parts of the government, Department of Commerce, State, Defense, etc., who will have to weigh in.”

The White House will make the final approval of any change. The discussion was in a large part prompted by a May 14 petition from DigitalGlobe to the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to lift the restrictions, which DigitalGlobe sees as hindering their business. NOAA is responsible for rules and regulations governing commercial satellites. The intelligence community’s support doesn’t ensure a rule change, however, as other government stakeholders will have their own recommendations. “We’ve submitted our recommendation to the White House and now that will have to go through the interagency and other parts of the government, Department of Commerce, State, Defense, etc., who will have to weigh in,” said Clapper.

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...