Dissecting the New U.S.Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy

By Joe Francica

There are two parts in dissecting the new government policy on commercial remote sensing: One, the stated goals of the government and, two, how the satellite data providers will take advantage of the policy to provide new products to the marketplace.

The first part is the government's policy, which reads as follows: "The fundamental goal of U.S.commercial remote sensing space policy is to advance and protect U.S.national security and foreign policy interests by maintaining the nation's leadership in remote sensing space activities, and by sustaining and enhancing the U.S.remote sensing industry.Doing so will also foster economic growth, contribute to environmental stewardship, and enable scientific and technological excellence."

This policy will pave the way for satellite data providers to develop very high-resolution instrumentation that will orbit the earth in the future. Space Imaging has requested and been granted permission to develop sensors with 10-inch pixel resolution.Yet, the next generation of Space Imaging satellites to be launched, however, will be in the 19-inch range.DigitalGlobe's QuickBird currently has sensors capable of resolving objects that are 24-inches.

With regard to the policy itself, U.S.national security interests are surely maintained, and have been for many years, by satellites that are already orbiting with resolution of 10-20 inches or better.However, not all agencies have immediate access or clearance to obtain imagery from sensors under the control of the military or the Central Intelligence Agency to which NIMA supplies remotely sensed data and analysis.Therefore, highly accurate imagery would be useful for developing policies at agencies such as the Departments of Commerce, Interior, and Agriculture, as well as NASA and Homeland Security.Local governments will benefit as well, provided the data are affordable.

However, the goal of fostering economic growth and helping with environmental stewardship works only if the sensors deployed have multispectral capabilities. I would suspect that the first sensors that will be launched will be panchromatic. The data becomes useful, then, only when integrated with lower resolution multispectral sensors to help monitor crop vigor, effluent discharge, or hydrocarbon microseepage, for example.The challenge will be to create cost effective products for use by industries who appreciate the value-added information discerned by these higher resolution products.On the other hand, however, would existing sensors do the job as well and for less money? Do private companies even know to ask these kind of questions to begin with?

The demand for data in commercial markets comes with additional cost scrutiny because users will most always seek the solution that meets the need at the lowest cost.However, if the data were integrated with a multispectral or thermal infrared data, some particularly interesting applications come to mind: As an example, Ken Dooley of Applied Geographics wrote to express his scenarios of how the higher resolution data might be used:

"Somebody walks into Home Depot anywhere in country into a (vendor sponsored?) kiosk. They key in and address and up comes an image of their neighborhood showing outline of house or street with thermal data the on coldest day of year (in the north) or hottest day of year (in the south).You point on your house, you see zoomed color coded image, and a calculation is done that shows ambient temperature and heat loss or cooling loss caused by a lack of insulation in attics or windows.A calculation is done to show BTU equivalent in dollars based on local power rates.This same data could be of value to window companies like Anderson.It could be of value to government officials to add a surcharge in taxes to businesses or houses that are wasting energy.It would be of value to real estate companies, and anyone that is looking to buy a developed property.I don't know if the technology can yet support this scenario, but I suspect it can.In addition, is the data good enough to show two images side by side that show a homeowner his lawn that is starting to be attacked by grubs.If so, wouldn't companies like Scotts or Grubex be able to use these data to increase sales?"

But cost will always be an issue.What would an image of the heat loss from your house be worth to you? $100? $50? If it saves you as much in one year's time, the cost is absolutely justified.But will the satellite image companies convey, convince, and deliver a cost effective product for these applications? They absolutely must.Mass-market products for location-based solutions must enter the market or the cost of commercial remotely sensed data will remain out of reach for most citizens.Currently, there is no immediate incentive for satellite companies to provide commercially viable products.

The satellite data providers make most of their money from government contracts which fosters complacency in product development.Products that will help the average citizen have not yet been recognized (or conceived!) as viable, and the launch of more highly accurate sensors is cause for raising prices, not lowering.These companies are perhaps much too entrenched in their current business model, and they have boxed themselves in to the point where they will find it difficult to think outside of it.

So what products would you pay for? Must they be as accurate as the ability to see a 10-inch object? How current would it have to be? Should it be integrated with real-time, dynamic spatial information such as weather, traffic, or the location of your nearest "buddy?" Maybe every car in the future will be able to download, via a 3G network, not only maps, but 3D, LIDAR-enhanced, 1-meter multispectral imagery as well.Too far fetched? It would be like having The Weather Channel in your car only with much better images of the unfamiliar terrain in which you may find yourself. And, of course, we all believed that The Weather Channel was going to be as successful as it is when it first aired.Maybe not too far fetched after all.

Published Wednesday, May 28th, 2003

Written by Joe Francica

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