Currently, the company is bound by a condition on its license that prevents it from selling images to anyone except the U.S. government at a resolution better than 50 centimeters, meaning anything that size or larger is visible. Fifty centimeters is about 20 inches.
Those limits are set on a case-by-case basis, though all licenses for satellites able to take pictures at 50 centimeters or better are kept to that standard. Those decisions are the product of government-wide effort, according to NOAA.
“After consultations with other government agencies NOAA will set specific limitations on operational performance, including, but not limited to, limitations on data collection and dissemination to protect U.S. national security and or foreign policy obligations,” spokesman John Leslie told The Hill via email.
Next summer, DigitalGlobe is set to launch its new satellite, WorldView-3, which boasts top-of-the-line color sensing and resolution.
The company’s founder and executive vice president, Walter Scott, said that the new satellite will be able to take pictures up to 10 inches in resolution. As a result, the company has asked NOAA to be able to sell the higher definition pictures.
“We’re seeing a lot of demand for higher resolution imagery,” Scott told The Hill.
The restrictions, he said, have not kept up with the pace of innovation.
“I think what we’re looking at is a regulatory environment that is a holdover from a bygone age. This industry was kicked off with legislation 20 years ago. A lot of the regulatory policies were put in place 10 years ago. That was long before this industry has become as relevant a source of economic growth as it has been,” he said.
“I think what we’re dealing with is a delay in responding to changing technology and changing world events,” Scott added.
The higher resolution images, Scott said, would be able to identify specific minerals or crops grown on the earth, which would be helpful for a range of commercial interests.
They also would ensure that American satellite companies remain the best in the business.
“The good thing about being a technology leader is you prove to somebody else that it's possible,” he said. “The bad thing about being a technology leader is it doesn’t take nearly as long for the next guy to catch up.”
DigitialGlobe expects to hear back about its petition in the next two weeks.
NOAA would not comment on the request, but Leslie said that the government “periodically examines the limits on resolution to ensure there is a balance between keeping the U.S. industry as the global lead and taking into account national security concerns, foreign policy concerns and international obligations.”
In addition to consumer uses, DigitalGlobe’s images are also sold for a variety of industrial and defense-related purposes.