Speaking to the National Space Symposium, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross recounted a meeting with CEOs in the US space industry, stating, “I heard the same comments over and over—the current licensing processes take too long, are unpredictable, and provide no certainty to a frustrated industry.” He added, “To these companies I say: we hear you. Government can and must do better.”

The Department of Commerce took a step towards “better” by releasing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) this summer. The ANPRM is intended to help inform the type of modifications needed to the current rules on commercial remote sensing, which have not been updated since 2006, to “facilitate the further development of the U.S. commercial remote sensing industry, while preserving essential U.S. national security interests, foreign policy, and international obligations.”

Public comment ended at the end of August 2018. Nine comments from the public were submitted: 7 from individual companies, 1 NGO, and 1 trade association (constituting 33 members from 11 countries). While the quantity of responses may have been limited, the content within revealed some common themes that the Department of Commerce will need to consider.

Tiered Approach to Commercial Remote Sensing Licensing

Several comments agreed that a “one-size fits all” approach to licensing does not make sense.  As the Secretary stated in his April speech: “We apply the same level of interagency scrutiny to a high school cubesat as we do to a billion-dollar asset designed for our intelligence community. This is silly!”  It seems industry agrees with this statement, although there was no one common proposal of characteristics which would qualify for a simpler licensing process versus the traditional interagency process.  Applications could be assessed by operations, technology, end users, or simply if the capability is available on the global market.  Further, a common input was the assumption of approval, an item that industry has been calling for some time.

De Minimis

Several commenters suggested a de minimis approach, that licensing not be required at all, or that the definition of a remote sensing space system should be revised to exclude systems that donot expressly sense the Earth.  Those include interplanetary missions, rocket launch video and imagery feeds, and any non-Earth imaging (NEI) activity.  The latter mission-type, NEI, is bound to create the most debate within the interagency, as there are currently strict limitationsthrough licensing set upon companies that are planning in-orbit inspection services, such as collecting no larger than a 3X3 pixel image on non-consenting objects.  Given the increasing number of commercial missions that include NEI as a viable business opportunity, a rulemaking decision on this item will have significant consequences for U.S. industry.

The Global Nature of Space

Several comments discussed ways to prevent penalizing US remote sensing companies that operate internationally, a new reality of the business, to allow them to remain competitive.  There were inputs on encouraging other regulatory bodies to accept US licensing conditions as authorization to avoid duplicative regulation, and requests that  jurisdiction be asserted only over operators in control of the remote sensing capability rather than all ground systems related to the dissemination and analysis of remote sensing data, which is often located around the globe.

Using 21stCentury tools

Some noted in comments the need to update the remote sensing licensing process to make it electronically available.  Surprisingly, NOAA currently requires hard copy and mailed applications.  Web portals, e-mail, and electronic signatures are suggested as methods to streamline the procedures and increase transparency in the process.

And more…

There were many other suggestions provided that weren’t major threads throughout the comments such as minimum standards for orbital debris (this item is also being assessed as part of Space Policy Directive-3 and through an upcoming FCC NPRM); an observation that technical standards should not be included in order to maintain technology-neutral regulations; a request that insurance requirements should not be addressed in this NPRM; and statements of support for the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act (H.R. 2809).  There was also a set of comments from the viewpoint of an NGO, signaling concern for availability of public remote sensing data.

The Bottom Line

While industry may not align perfectly on how to make commercial remote sensing regulations more transparent, predictable, streamlined, and agile, comments provided in the response to the ANPRM should assist the Department of Commerce in its efforts to implement Space Policy Directive-2, Streamlining Regulations on Commercial Use of Space.  It is understood that the Department is working quickly, as Secretary Ross says, “to unshackle American industry and ensure that the United States remains the world leader in space services and technology.”  Industry is equally eager to see the results of remote sensing regulatory reform.