Regulation: a Double-edged Sword

Panel concludes restrictions on remote sensing activities are not without risk


The U.S. government should adopt a new regulatory approach to the commercial space industry that is less defensive in nature and instead designed to incentivize innovations from which it can benefit, according to a GEOINT 2016 panel that convened Tuesday morning to discuss the revolution in remote sensing.

Case in point: Commercial satellite operator DigitalGlobe must discard three-fourths of the imagery it collects in the short wave infrared (SWIR) spectral band because government restrictions do not permit its sale to commercial customers, said panelist Walter Scott, the company’s founder and chief technical officer.

“We’ve got to get our heads out of this Maginot Line mentality that we can stop the advance of technology around the world and instead find a way to embrace it, because at the end of the day it’s all a positive good,” Scott said.

DigitalGlobe’s SWIR sensor, which is unique in the commercial industry, was added to the company’s WorldView-3 satellite to capture data that might be of interest in a variety of markets such as agriculture. But because SWIR is considered a nontraditional commercial remote sensing capability, the government has placed spatial resolution restrictions on the data, rendering DigitalGlobe unable to capture business opportunities that require higher-precision data.

The SWIR sensor on WorldView-3, which was launched 2014, is capable of collecting data with 3.7-meter spatial resolution, according to DigitalGlobe spokesperson Turner Brinton. But the company’s operating license bars it from selling SWIR data with better than 7.5-meter resolution to non-U.S. government customers.

“We’re missing an opportunity,” DigitalGlobe CEO Jeffrey Tarr, who was not part of the panel, said after the panel discussion, which was moderated by Kevin O’Connell, CEO of Innovative Analytics and Training.

Such restrictions, currently a subject of debate among U.S. policymakers, illustrate a weakness in the approach to regulating commercial capabilities that were, in the not-too-distant past, the exclusive province of governments.

Douglas Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said during the panel discussion that commercial space industry regulations have traditionally been weighted more toward minimizing the national security risks associated with a given activity than reaping the benefits. “So there’s a presumption of guilt,” Loverro said.

“We can do things more quickly than we have” to date, said panelist Winston Beauchamp, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space and director of the Principal DoD Space Advisor Staff. He referenced the similar debate in the past about loosening restrictions on electro-optical imagery, and that this required convincing risk-averse officials in the DoD and the Intelligence Community.

Beauchamp called for a regulatory regime that incentivizes industry to innovate and compete, even if that makes some in the national security realm uncomfortable, because the benefits outweigh the risks. Finding the right balance is key, but opinions differ as to where that balance lies, he said.

“The last thing we want to do is fight a losing rear-guard battle against the pace of technology,” Beauchamp added.

Overregulation carries the risk not just of stifling opportunities and innovation, but of driving entire industries overseas—beyond the reach of U.S. regulators, multiple panelists said.

Not approving a given activity can have adverse national security consequences, said panelist Lisa Porter, executive vice president and director of In-Q-Tel-funded CosmiQ Works. Those consequences can include ceding technical innovation and industry leadership to other countries, she said.

“There seems to be a false dichotomy between national security and prosperity for American industry,” said Robbie Schingler, co-founder and chief strategy officer of small satellite operator Planet Labs. The U.S. government is used to being the sole driver of technology and innovation, but this is no longer the case, Schingler concluded.


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