My View on Civilian Remote Sensing Program Funding

By Joe Francica

CivilianRemoteSensing_editorial Last week, President Bush proposed an increase to the civilian land remote sensing program administered by the U.S.Geological Survey.The Fiscal 2006 budget of this program calls for $46 Million in spending or approximately $14 Million over the actual 2005 enacted budget to maintain and improve Landsat 7 operation.

By contrast, it should be noted that the NextView contract that was awarded over the past 18 months to both DigitalGlobe and ORBIMAGE by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to deliver the next generation high resolution satellite is valued at approximately $1 Billion over a multi-year period between 2004-2008.

The disparity in funding aside, the mission of each agency, USGS vs. NGA, is nicely pigeon-holed between civilian and military, respectively.In my mind, it begs two questions:
  1. Are we funding the existing civilian remote sensing projects adequately?
  2. Will the emphasis on supplying the military with advanced sensors aid the private sector and public civilian agencies?
First, the satellite data products supplied by both DigitalGlobe and ORBIMAGE is not just the private purview of the military.Products from each company have been widely available to the public.But my concern is that when your primary source of funding is from the military, your product development and pricing are therefore influenced by your most prominent customer.

A second observation: Landsat 7 Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) has 30 meter resolution for the visible and near infrared (IR) multispectral mode, thereby creating color (natural and color IR) imagery, and 15 meter in the panchromatic (black and white) mode.The NextView contract will help to launch satellites with a 0.41 meter resolution in the panchromatic mode, and 1.64 meter resolution in the multispectral mode.These are the specifications of the OrbView-5 satellite sensor.Orbview-3, whose product are currently available, have an image resolution of 1-meter panchromatic and 4-meter multispectral.

Certainly, civilian and military applications differ.But, if we look at some of the reasons for the civilian program's budget increase, we will find some applications that certainly require a satellite with improved resolution, namely "emergency relief officials, land managers and planners." For emergency situations, will 30 meter resolution suffice? That means that the smallest object you see is the size of a land parcel about 900 square meters or approximately 10,000 square feet or .23 acres.Think of a house that's about 2000 square feet sitting on a parcel of land that's about 6000 square feet and then relate that to what you think you will need in certain applications.

For the last several years, the private remote sensing satellite companies have not really been encouraged to develop products suitable for the private and the civilian public sector applications.The military supplies the funding and even the contracts with the military are written so that it is possible to preempt coverage in times of national emergency as when the NGA invoked a clause in their contract with the satellite companies to purchase "all available imagery" over certain sensitive, military targets.In other words, there is not much monetary incentive to market, sell, or attract the private sector to remotely-sensed image products.But there is good progress in terms of availability of imagery archives such as ORBIMAGE's OrbView Cities, DigitalGlobe's ImageAltlas, Space Imaging's Carterra Online.

Likewise, it is not the mission of the USGS to engage in the promotion of their satellite products to the private sector.That's not their job.Their mission is to help other civilian agencies in the government do their job.In truth, I've always had some problem with this as there is so much that needs to be done to promote the mission of the USGS's land remote sensing program.The growth of websites such Terraserver, the popularization of satellite information by the media during the Iraq War (namely Keyhole's visibility among cable news networks), and the use of maps and air photos by popular search engines (See Google Maps) have all helped to expose location-based information to the masses.I suspect that the demand for affordable, high resolution image will only grow proportionally.Will the current private satellite companies support this growing market demand or will they continue to always look to the government to support their business model? And perhaps as importantly, will the mission of the Land Remote Sensing program within the USGS be able to support a similar appetite by public agencies with the current level of funding?

Published Thursday, February 10th, 2005

Written by Joe Francica

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