Last spring, wildfires broke out in Fort McMurray, Alberta that scorched over one million acres of forestland, causing billions of dollars in damage. Emergency respondents faced hazardous life-threatening conditions like sweltering temperatures and impenetrable walls of smoke in their efforts to contain the blazes. One of the biggest threats these wildfires contained were small smoldering “hotspots” that perpetuated these infernos, and were hidden under thick layers of smoke. One resource that’s assisted firefighters are satellites, which use their sensory equipment and processes like false color imaging through shortwave infrared light wavelengths to pinpoint the originating sources of these wildfires—most of which were these tiny hotspots.
DigitalGlobe is a Colorado-based satellite imagery company that was assisting the Albertan government in monitoring and identifying the sources of these wildfires. Their satellite’s imaging technologies were so precise they could pinpoint these dangerous hotspots with some being as small as seven to nine feet. DigitalGlobe ran into a roadblock during this time however, due to governmental regulations that prevented their release of satellite imaging data containing resolutions smaller than seven meters. These constraining laws are known as the Land Remote-Sensing Commercialization Act of 1984, and the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 (which repealed the 1984 law). Both acts involved a governmental system established to utilize satellite imagery data obtained from satellites in terrestrial orbit.
The origins of these laws date back to the mid-20th century amidst the space race between the United States and Soviet Union. At the time, satellites were strictly used for government and military purposes, and the United States was too focused on coming out on top over the Russians to realize the commercial potential in satellites. It wasn’t until the 1980s when businesses realized the expansive capabilities a market for outer space imaging contained, which prompted the first Land Remote Sensing Act to be passed. Although the commercial satellite industry is worth billions (and projected to grow), the crafts are used by countless public and private entities.
Despite some regulations loosening over the years, the US government still has a lot of say on where companies can sell their images and who can receive the proper commercial licensing. There aren’t calls for complete deregulation since there are significant privacy and national security concerns that must be addressed as satellite imagery becomes cheaper and readily available. Since satellite imagery, facial recognition technology, and image distribution speed is rapidly improving, concerns are high that looser regulations could prompt satellites to participate maliciously or invasively. While individuals are impossible to be identified, owners of structures like factories, vessels, and private residences can’t do much to prevent images with their properties in them from reaching competitors or the general public.
Further privacy issues raised from loosening satellite imagery regulations are comparable to the same concerns surrounding drone photography, both of which will increase as these technologies improve. Since terroristic groups or hostile nations would benefit from obtaining high-resolution satellite imagery, the importance to always keep some degree of restrictions in effect are understandable. Having said that, there is an unclear line separating the appropriation of when satellites could (or should) release high-resolution images for the welfare of public safety (like the Fort McMurray fires), and when those scenarios conflict with national security that must be resolved.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense