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The company, DigitalGlobe, holds contracts to provide satellite imagery to the government today, including the 10-year, $3.5 billion EnhancedView contract for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA).
There are no restrictions on the resolution level of images DigitalGlobe provides to U.S. government customers, according to Walter Scott, the company's founder, executive VP and CTO, but policy put in place 13 years ago barred companies from providing images with anything sharper than half-meter resolution, roughly 20 inches. The company has asked that the limit be eased to 25 centimeters, about 10 inches.
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"The way the [satellite] licensing process works, you have to have a reason to ask" for the restriction to be eased, Scott said. "In our case, we have a license, we have a satellite to launch next year, but the license won't let us use the full capabilities of the satellite."
Scott pointed out that aircraft already collect images at much higher resolutions, up to 5 cm in more than 90 countries. And the U.S. government is working out the rules for drones to be used, which also will be able to provide higher-resolution images.
Then there are foreign competitors. "We compete head to head against the Pleaides satellites," Scott said. "They can't go to 25 centimeters, but because they're French-subsidized, they're unconcerned with the cost of capital. So we consider it important to compete with our best technology."
Lawrie Jordan, director of imagery for ESRI, one of the powerhouse GIS firms in the United States, and a customer of DigitalGlobe, believes that if NOAA grants the resolution change, it will be a good thing for the industry, and for the country.
"There are historical objections to higher resolution," Jordan said. "First, there was the unfounded fear of the unknown, 'Big Brother is spying on me.' None of that is true. The second historical objection was probably concern from international governments, militaries, intelligence organizations, concerned about the disclosure of secret facilities, systems, and so forth. ... I think we have adequate laws on the books already to protect against disclosure of information that would hurt our national interest."
The third challenge, Jordan said, is the disconnect between the pace of legislative change and technological change.
"Legislation moves slowly but technology moves at warp speed," he said. "It's very true in space and space-based sensing."
Scott said DigitalGlobe's petition has to be reviewed in an interagency process that includes NOAA, Defense, the State Department, the intelligence community and other agencies.
"We don't know how long it will take because the process tends to be fairly opaque," Scott said. "We think we have a pretty good case. At the time restrictions were put in place, there really wasn't a geospatial industry."