20090827_HO_DIGITALGLOBE_WV2_VAFWASHINGTON: In the next few weeks an unlikely government agency known more for weather than regulating satellites, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), may decide the international future of America’s commercial satellite imagery industry, dominated now by DigitalGlobe.

NOAA licenses American commercial remote sensing satellites, which includes DigitalGlobe’s five satellites currently in orbit. One of the key restrictions these licenses impose on what some call the commercial spy satellite company is how much detail — resolution — their satellite pictures can offer to commercial clients. Currently, the resolution limit is half a meter. although I understand the GeoEye and DigitalGlobe birds will be able to supply photos with resolution as low as 10 centimeters to government clients such as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. The lowest current official resolution is 41 centimeters, although I understand the next GeoEye and DigitalGlobe birds will be able to supply photos with significantly lower resolutions to government clients such as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. So if DigitialGlobe has an image at a higher resolution it actually has to make it blurrier before it can sell the image. CLARIFIED RESOLUTIONS AVAILABLE Aug. 26 at 10:30 a.m.

But Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe’s founder and now executive VP and chief technical officer, tells me there is “significant demand” for quarter-meter resolution from the international market. And that’s why the company applied for a change to the resolution they can be licensed for from half a meter to a quarter meter.

And DigitalGlobe is “optimistic” that NOAA will change the resolution. There are afew reasons for the possiblity of a change. Airplane cameras can yield resolution of one inch and satellite optics and their related technologies have improved markedly over the decade since the license standards were put in place, NOAA may well conclude that their current restriction hamstrings American businesses in their attempts to penetrate the international market. As many in the defense industry have argued — and quite a few intelligence professionals — it’s much better for the United States to sell sensitive technology to friendly governments because we both ensure market share and we know with great detail the technical capabilities our friends and allies rely on.

Scott points to the recent sale to the Abu Dhabi by France of two electro-optical satellite, where Lockheed Martin lost the 700 million Euro competition, as a sign of the increasing strength of international competition. DigitalGlobe had been contacted about selling GeoEye 2, a satellite otherwise consigned to years in a warehouse since DigitialGlobe absorbed GeoEye early this year, to Abu Dhabi. It’s unclear whether the resolution restrictions played any role in Abu Dhabi’s decision to go with the French satellite. Also, the French reportedly offered access to services, including image processing software, expert training and other services as part of the deal.

But the Falcon Eye deal, as it’s known, is clearly an arrow in Digital Globe’s quiver as it presses its case with the US government.

Part of the reason DigitalGlobe is so eager to boost foreign sales by making its satellites more technically appealing through the resolution change is that overall spending on commercial imagery by their biggest single client — the United States government — is likely to come down over the next few years as the war in Afghanistan winds down. Diretor of National Intelligence James Clapper has called for double digit cuts to the intelligence budget over the next decade and he made clear that a substantial portion of those cuts would come from the pots of money spent on commercial imagery.

But Scott notes that DigitalGlobe has seen some of its business with the government– value-added analytic work — increase since the merger with GeoEye. Also, the Pentagon’s pivot to the Pacific provides a potentially huge market for Scott’s company. The enormous expanses of the Pacific, combined with the need for constantly updated imagery to provide the intelligence community with data for change detection analysis and other intelligence, he argues.


  • EricPamler

    No working mission system till date…No rover capability…

  • M&S

    Some thoughts:
    1. Does the .5 -> .25 meter resolution change offer truly useful improvements in image quality or is it just bragging rights? The notion that an airplane provides 1″ resolution really is meaningless unless you are after faces, so, frankly is the difference between 10cm and 25cm. What target feature makes a difference at that level that you cannot identify it from macro shapes or environmental (placement, associated equipment etc.) features?
    2. How good are the obliques on commercial imagers? I wouldn’t like to see the DOD become dependent on cheap satellite PHOTINT only to have China blast the buggers out of the sky, as they did with the laser dazzle incident awhile back. Using simple trigonometry, it would seem that if it’s 180nm straight down, a ground track difference of 180nm offset equates to a slant of 254nm _through distortion laden atmospherics_. Now magnify that to a ground track displacement of 500nm. If a 10cm imaging capability is what you get as baseline, and you multiply that by a factor of 10 for each additional 100nm through disturbed air you have to squint, suddenly ‘best possible imager quality’ makes sense. If you are providing targeting for missiles and rockets aimed into Israel. Are there limits to the orbital geometries allowed? To the maneuvering fuel for quick mechanic changes?
    3. Can someone be charged with war crimes if their intel product is sold to the other side? How secure is the system link to make sure that satellites cannot be ‘borrowed’ for look back at own-forces with equal or greater resolution? Remember, China has, within the past several years, vacuumed the entire internet for minutes at a time. I would like to think we are not in the process of creating the equivalent of a Continental Tyre/Edsel/Ford Europe fiasco of the digital age but am curious as to what level of vetting goes on which permits the U.S. oversight of all delivered product from American Corporations and how much -that- interferes with the likely sales profits of commercial imagery. Or, for that matter, the other nations.
    I’m sure that Abu Dhabi has the capital to purchase a quality technical review of their satellite’s design specs but unless they have a virtual telepresence in the clean room wherever Astrium is building the bird, who is to say what all the modules on the electronics rack are doing? Can we ‘sample, shut down or distort’ imagery?
    If not, there had better be a vetting service which provides provenance digital watermarking and copies of -every- image and to which would-be space system user country MUST register, or we are just asking for trouble here.