Geology & Geophysics News

Remote Sensing Regulations Come Under Congressional Scrutiny

Republicans accused the administration of dragging its feet on recommending policy revisions. A federal advisory committee has a November deadline to provide recommendations.

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Members of Congress and some industry experts raised concerns last week over policies governing the commercial remote sensing industry. Regulation of the industry is drawing congressional attention amid concerns that U.S. companies are facing increasing competition from foreign firms and may fall behind as innovators in an economic sector that the United States has led.

Amid general agreement that changes are needed, speakers at a 7 September hearing of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology differed over how broad an overhaul the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 needs.

The remote sensing industry uses satellites, drones, and other platforms to collect and process imagery of Earth that has a wide variety of applications, including mapping, disaster response, and natural resource management. In 2015, commercial satellite Earth observation data generated revenues totaling $1.6 billion, according to Kevin Pomfret, a hearing witness who is the executive director of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy. He said that the market for aerial imagery alone could reach $3.3 billion per year by 2023. Pomfret cited several 2015 reports.

Current Regulations Criticized

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the full science committee, depicted policies regulating the industry in the United States as antiquated and counterproductive. “The laws, regulations, and policies that govern private remote sensing space systems have not been updated for decades, are outdated, and [are] cumbersome,” he said. “It’s time for Congress to take a hard look at how we can streamline and reduce regulatory burdens.”

Kevin O’Connell, another witness and president and CEO of Innovative Analytics and Training, said that the current regulations “are no more meaningful than the operator’s manual for an old car” and that the government “needs to reorient its thinking around future challenges and objective realities, instead of looking backwards.”

O’Connell, who is outgoing chair of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Federal Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES), added that “the globalization of this [remote sensing] technology and the information that is coming from it now creates incentives for other countries to offer deals [and] opportunities for people to move overseas. I would greatly worry about that.”

Innovation Versus National Security?

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressed hope that revisions could be drafted to better support remote sensing innovation in the United States while also recognizing national security concerns related to the release of fine-scale imagery.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) said that the balance between supporting innovation and protecting national security “is all out of whack.” Protecting national security “is paramount,” but “there are questions of what these [security] interests should be in particular in light of increasing international competition and wide availability of commercial remote sensing and geospatial data,” he said.

He and other Republicans also expressed concern about keeping U.S. industry from moving overseas if U.S. regulations don’t keep pace with the industry. They claimed that the Obama administration has been dragging its feet on recommending policy revisions.

Surgical Modifications

Democrats at the hearing, including subcommittee ranking member Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), acknowledged the need to update regulations but suggested that surgical modifications would be more effective than wholesale revisions.

Edwards added that with advances in remote sensing technologies and an increasing number of license applications, NOAA needs adequate funding for its licensing and regulatory roles. She also highlighted the role of the federal government in supporting the industry.

Hearing witness Michael Dodge, an assistant professor in the Department of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, gave some specific examples of possible revisions to the 1992 law and other regulations, including a shorter-than-120-day license application review period that would still meet government oversight needs without being so burdensome to industry. He also suggested looking into streamlining the federal interagency review process.

Advisory Committee Report

Babin criticized the administration for a delay by ACCRES in preparing a report on statutory updates needed to license private remote sensing space systems. That report, required under Section 202 of the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, sets a 25 November 2016 deadline for the report. Babin said it is “unacceptable” that ACCRES has not met since June 2015.

NOAA spokesperson John Leslie told Eos that the agency “takes its role in commercial remote sensing licensing very seriously.” According to a notice posted in the Federal Register on 7 September, the same day as the congressional hearing, NOAA has scheduled an ACCRES meeting for 21 September. The meeting’s agenda includes a discussion on possible statutory updates.

“NOAA views both the meeting and report as a valuable opportunity to determine how best to effectively engage the growing commercial remote sensing industry,” Leslie said.

At the hearing, Edwards expressed frustration that the science committee, controlled by Republicans, had not invited a NOAA representative as a witness. “It would have been helpful to invite NOAA to appear here today. They are not the enemy,” she said.

Babin promised that the committee would invite NOAA to testify “after the [ACCRES] report is delivered.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), Remote sensing regulations come under congressional scrutiny, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO059371. Published on 14 September 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0