Remote Sensing in a Privatized Future

This past January, SkyFi announced its system to procure high-resolution satellite images to members of the general public. Many of us have seen satellite images of our neighborhoods from Google Earth; however, this technology goes a step further to allow consumers to buy images from a specific place and timeframe. Allowing the general public to have access to aerial views of their wedding or mountain-top summit, for example.  

Humanity’s interest in observing the Earth is hardly new. The U.S. Geological Survey began plans to observe natural resources via satellite imagery as early as the 1960s. In collaboration with the Department of the Interior, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they finally launched their first satellite in 1972 to collect visual data of the Earth. These Landsat missions have continued to the present day with Landsat 7, Landsat 8, and Landsat 9 currently in use, with plans to launch Landsat Next in 2030.

Since 1972, technology and image analysis have also improved. The power to observe natural resources quickly turned to also making strides in military reconnaissance and national security. Today, the focus turns to regulating the private sector’s use of low Earth orbit satellites and their data.

Most recently in 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated the licensure of private remote sensing systems. The changes made to the 2006 regulation included a new approach to licensing conditions which should significantly reduce the regulatory burden on operators. According to the revisions, the number of conditions placed on licenses will be reduced, and any conditions imposed will be temporary unless there is a continuing reason to maintain the conditions. The changes will help the economy adapt to new technology and international obligations while promoting national security in a rapidly changing universe.

From the early days of observing mere geological structures, to watching SkyFi start capturing the next generation of privatized remote sensing, regulations and policy are challenged to keep up with issues like the deorbiting of defunct satellites and international cooperation in low Earth orbit. The exciting topic of remote sensing also overlaps with cyber security, data encryption, and privacy laws. 

There may not be any better lens to watch how space law unfolds with respect to security, transparency, and flexibility in a privatized future.

By Caylan Fazio


The CSU Global Space Law Center 

The sky is no longer the limit…

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