Over the past few decades, government regulations around overhead and satellite imagery have seen significant evolution. Initially strict and limiting, these regulations have gradually been adjusted to reflect technological advancements and market realities. This post delves into the history and recent changes in these regulations, particularly focusing on the U.S. market and suppliers.

The 1990s: The Government Monopoly

In the early 1990s, satellite imagery was primarily the domain of government entities. The U.S. Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 (full text of law here, simplified version here) marked a pivotal shift, allowing American firms to operate imaging satellites. Prior to this, high-quality satellite imagery was either a secret or a government monopoly. The transition to commercial satellite imagery was a significant step, similar to the U.S. government’s decision in 2000 to stop intentionally degrading civilian GPS signals, which had profound impacts on various industries and public services​​.

The 2000s: Restrictions and Competitive Disadvantages

Despite the 1992 act, U.S. policies continued to impose significant restrictions on commercial satellite imagery. For example, U.S. firm DigitalGlobe’s 1999 request to sell 0.25-meter resolution imagery was only granted in 2014. Such restrictions led to a competitive disadvantage when companies from other countries faced fewer restrictions. Additionally, operational constraints, like the requirement to degrade shortwave infrared (SWIR) imagery resolution, hampered the effective use of satellite data in critical situations such as disaster response​​. You can read about the cost of such requirements in this 2016 op-ed by Walter Scott, the founder of DigitalGlobe:

This regulatory dysfunction played out again a few months ago as wild fires burned in Canada. DigitalGlobe supported the Alberta Provincial Government with SWIR imagery that penetrated the heavy smoke, showing where the fires were actually burning. Current restrictions required DigitalGlobe to degrade the SWIR resolution, effectively throwing out 75 percent of the data and needlessly reducing the firefighters’ decision-making confidence.

2020: A Major Shift in Regulations

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce released new regulations (full text here) to improve the licensing process for private U.S. satellite remote sensing operations. These regulations aimed to enhance U.S. leadership in the commercial space industry. They increased openness and transparency in the licensing process, eliminated most restrictions on operations, and prohibited post-licensing imposition of additional conditions.

Key Changes and Implications

The recently updated regulations have significantly reduced restrictions on radar, night-time, and short-wave infrared imaging. They also modernized the licensing process to match the rapidly advancing state-of-the-art capabilities in areas like image resolution. These restrictions are now subject to expiration dates, ensuring they stay in sync with technological progress. This new framework allows unique operational conditions to be maintained for a maximum of three years, giving the government time to develop countermeasures. Extensions beyond three years are possible only if the Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State personally intervenes to justify them. Moreover, U.S. operators are now permitted to sell images in foreign markets.

The system is based on a tiered structure. Quoting from Breaking Defense, the tier structure works as follows:

Tier 1: If an applicant proposes a system that is capable only of producing unenhanced data [that is, raw imagery not improved or supplemented in any way] substantially the same as unenhanced data available from sources not regulated by Commerce, such as foreign sources, the system will be “Tier 1,” and receive the bare minimum of conditions. This is because Commerce cannot prevent the harm that such systems might cause to national security, regardless of how strictly they are regulated, because substantially the same unenhanced data are available from sources outside Commerce’s control.

Tier 2: If an applicant proposes a system that is capable of producing unenhanced data that are substantially the same as unenhanced data available from U.S. sources only, the system will be “Tier 2.” As there is no foreign competition for that unenhanced data, a U.S. license restriction could be effective.

Tier 3: If an applicant proposes a system that is capable of producing unenhanced data that are substantially the same as no available unenhanced data—that is, if the applicant has no competitors, foreign or domestic—the system will be “Tier 3,” and more stringent controls logically may be applied.

Remaining Restrictions

Despite these relaxations, some constraints remain, particularly for non-Earth imaging (e.g., one satellite taking pictures of another). This area still faces automatic restrictions, such as requiring a 5 day prior notice to the Department of Defense and permission from the satellite owner before imaging​​.

An interesting aspect of these changes was the adjustment in the resolution restrictions of data collection. The initial draft proposed a resolution limit of 0.25 meters for Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery, but the final rules removed such blanket restrictions. Caps on resolution were to be applied only if the satellite operator sold images at resolutions greater than those of foreign competitors.

2023: Conditions Expire

On July 19, 2023, the initial set of Tier 3 conditions permanently expired. NOAA, which is under the Department of Commerce, updated the licenses of Tier 3 holders, eliminating 39 temporary restrictions. Additional modifications involved lowering global imaging constraints for specific modes, allowing imaging and distribution across over 99% of the Earth’s surface. This also included the elimination of certain Non-Earth Imaging (satellite-to-satellite) & Rapid Revisit stipulations and the removal of all existing temporary conditions related to X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR).

In August of 2023, NOAA announced modification of operating licenses which allowed more commercial satellites to offer their full remote sensing capabilities to the public.