By U.S. Rep. Brian Babin
For over two decades, the United States has led the world in space-based commercial imagery, supporting our civil, commercial, and national security communities.
In the past few years, American innovation in space-based remote sensing has enjoyed a period of immense growth. American companies are investing in and developing a host of new and innovative technologies, services and applications. These include space-based full-motion video, hyper- and multi-spectral imaging, space-to-space remote sensing, and commercial signals intelligence.
As these technologies grow, we must ask: Why, what, and how should we regulate space-based remote sensing activities? The last time Congress passed legislation on this subject was the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Act. Back then, cubesats had not yet been invented or standardized. Computers, sensors, and other key technologies were more expensive and far less capable. Today we depend on these technologies and the geospatial data they produce. Satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, and many other data-collection systems provide the public with unprecedented information.
The impetus is clear: we need reform. Over the past several years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s commercial remote-sensing license applications have increased exponentially. Many of these applications are precedent-setting and challenge the legal construct of the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Act. Some of NOAA’s licensing actions are months, if not years, over the 120-day determination timeline required by law. Companies are applying and waiting without any understanding as to why NOAA takes so long to respond. Stakeholders report significant uncertainty with licensing actions, including modifications to operational license conditions without notice or due process. American remote sensing startups want to stay in the United States, but they must plan for overseas operations due to uncertainty in the regulatory approval process. It is time to update the law. Without reform, we risk losing American leadership in commercial remote sensing. Such a loss hurts our national security and economic competitiveness.
We saw this happen in the 1990s when a number of U.S. companies sought to establish space-based synthetic aperture radar services. But due to regulatory uncertainty and dysfunction in executive branch license-determination processes, U.S. investments went overseas. Instead, Germany and Canada benefited. Each established private-sector synthetic aperture radar services, which to this day dominate the international commercial market. We can’t make the same mistake again.
It is time for fundamental rethinking about commercial remote sensing. Agencies continue to think about remote sensing as a cold-war space technology when, in fact, it is increasingly an information technology, requiring a different regulatory philosophy. We must recognize that the United States is not the only nation with a commercial remote sensing industry — customers have a world of options.
Remote sensing is a global information technology. We need to facilitate the democratization of information. Space is not the only way to collect this information. Aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems, individual cellphone cameras, and many other sensors also offer similar data. While space-based remote sensing is certainly unique and presents its own opportunities and challenges, we should view it in the context of a larger information- technology policy.
We must provide a more certain and permissive regulatory environment that promotes innovation. We need the United States to lead the global remote-sensing industry to attract investment from around the world and keep domestic industry from going overseas. With a global competitive edge, both friend and foe will rely on U.S. private-sector services and applications, which will provide significant economic and national security benefits.
Congress and the administration can and must work together on reform that encourages U.S. industrial innovation in a way that aligns with national security interests. It may be time to shift the responsibility of protecting national security away from the licensees and back to the government. We cannot have the private sector compete with national security. Just like in any other sector, the government has an obligation to mitigate the risk that private activities could have on national security before it attempts to prohibit that activity. Only after every reasonable effort has been made by the government to protect national security and all alternatives have been exhausted, should we begin to discuss limiting individual’s freedoms.
As chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology’s space subcommittee, I am committed to working with industry, academia, and government to introduce a common-sense bipartisan solution that removes regulatory barriers and supports continued American commercial investment in space-based remote sensing. It is time to reform the outdated and broken 1992 Land Remote Sensing Act.
U.S. Rep. Brian Babin represents the 36th District of Texas and is the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology’s space subcommittee.