An image acquired Dec. 8, 2011, by a DigitalGlobe satellite shows the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sailing in the Yellow Sea. (DigitalGlobe)
WASHINGTON — Satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe wants the US government to lift a ban on the quality of pictures its can provide to commercial companies.
Company officials say they need resolution quality restrictions lifted to better compete against non-US-based satellite imagery companies, particularly as defense spending shrinks over the next decade.
“We’re dealing with a regulatory regime that we believe is outdated, does not reflect the current competitive or economic realities,” said Walter Scott, the company’s executive vice president and chief technical officer. “We want the ability to compete in a highly competitive international marketplace using the best of our capabilities.”
The Colorado-based company has petitioned the Commerce Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to lift restrictions that limit the quality of commercially available images to 0.5-meter resolution.
Digital Globe has five satellites in orbit. The company plans to launch another satellite — called WorldView-3 — in the middle of next year. The cameras on that spacecraft will have the “highest resolution of any commercial remote sensing satellite available,” Scott said. WorldView-3 offers 31-centimeter resolution.
But without the waiver, US government agencies will be the only customer allowed access to the highest-quality images.
Digital Globe submitted the request on May 14, but has yet to receive a ruling. The agency told the company last month that it would not respond during the typical 120-day response time. It is unclear how the US government shutdown will impact the timing of a decision. Commerce officials were not immediately available for comment due to the shutdown.
DigitalGlobe argues that the quality of commercial aerial photography — like images available on Google and Bing map websites — is in more than 90 countries at 5-centimeters resolution. These images are taken from an aircraft, not a satellite.
Foreign satellites, such as the French Astrium Pleiades satellite, offer imagery at 50-centimeter resolution. Japan and India are preparing to launch satellites at even higher resolutions, Scott said.
Astrium has asked the French government to do better than 50 centimeters. The United Arab Emirates has awarded Astrium a contract for a pair of high-resolution satellites.
“We’re seeing a very competitive world marketplace and we just want to be able to compete using the best of our capabilities,” Scott said.
DigitalGlobe argues that allowing it to provide higher resolution to commercial customers will help the US maintain a technological edge over foreign companies.
“We have the ability with the upcoming launch of WorldView-3 to offer the best available internationally,” Scott said. “As long as customers are buying from US companies, that’s — from a US national security standpoint — better than if they’re buying from non-US companies because at the end of the day the US government does have the availability to regulate US companies and it has no ability to regulate companies that are from outside the US.”
The company’s satellite imagery has been used after natural disasters, such as after the accident at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor in 2011. In December 2011, one of the company’s satellites spotted China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea. DigitalGlobe satellites collect about 2.5 million square kilometers of imagery daily.
The company has a multibillion, multiyear contract with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency — called EnhancedView — for high resolution imagery.
“One of the big values of commercial imagery is that it’s not classified ... so it can be shared with allies and coalition partners,” Scott said.
The company has invested “several billion dollars” on satellites and is poised to continue investment, a plus for the US industrial base, Scott said.
“Anytime there has been a downturn in defense spending, the ability to have continued investments made in that industrial base by non-defense companies is one way of preserving the industrial base in a time when otherwise it might erode,” he said.
If the US government does not grant permission to provide higher resolution, DigitalGlobe would have to drop the image quality for commercial customers.
Aside from mapping services, such as Google, Bing and Apple, foreign governments, location-based services, oil and gas companies, transportation planning and telecommunications have all been asking for higher resolution imagery.
“Pretty much across the board, high-resolution is an enabler for those segments because it allows you to do things more accurately,” Scott said. “You look at a picture and the crisper the picture is, the better the picture.”