The White House is reviewing a proposal to lift the restriction preventing U.S. satellite imagery providers from releasing pictures with a resolution of less than 50 cm (19.7 in.). Adoption of the proposal to allow release of images with 25-cm resolution could kick off an explosion of global competition and products for satellite imagery providers hungry to expand substantially beyond the government market.

DigitalGlobe, the only remaining U.S. high-resolution satellite imagery provider, included the proposal in a licensing request filed last May. The first 50-cm license was provided in 2000. The company’s WorldView-3 satellite, capable of products with 31-cm resolution, is launching in August, and DigitalGlobe is worried its market share is being siphoned off by rival Airbus Defense and Space (formerly EADS Astrium) and others.

The U.S. intelligence community has “reached a consensus [that] bodes well for industry” supporting DigitalGlobe’s licensing request, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at last week’s 10th Annual Geoint conference here. National Reconnaissance Office Director Betty Sapp says she would rather focus her agency, which builds and operates U.S. spy satellites, on the most difficult, high-end challenges. “We want to make sure we are not doing anything they can do,” she says.

This harmony grew out of dissent. The intelligence community once had four different positions among three agencies, according to a government official. The White House is moving swiftly to come to a final government position and issue the license as soon as possible, this official says. However, there is still some discord among agencies outside the intelligence community. One option is to phase in the lower-resolution products, first allowing 31-cm imagery to accommodate WorldView’s capabilities and later 25-cm products.

Once almost solely reliant on the U.S. government for business, the commercial satellite imagery market in the U.S. is eager to diversify, a prospect made easier by relaxed resolution restrictions. With funding from deep-pocketed companies such as Google, new providers are cropping up around the globe and aggressively chasing work for the agriculture and oil and gas industries, among others, says Bill Gattle, vice president and general manager of Harris Corp.’s space and geospatial intelligence business. Harris is a top reseller of commercial space imagery in the U.S. 

DigitalGlobe is itching to get into that market, as well.

Newcomers such as Skybox, Urthecast and PlanetiQ are boasting smaller satellites and new capabilities such as video from space. Urthecast, for example, is conducting checkout on its 5-meter resolution electro-optical camera and high-resolution video-imaging sensors, both launched in November for installation on the International Space Station. “Now we have this ubiquitous imagery seemingly coming from anywhere,” says Jeffrey Harris, newly elected head of the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. He notes that these new companies are aggressively marketing taskable services to nongovernment customers, allowing them quick access to imagery, as opposed to placing an order and awaiting delivery. He was director of the NRO from 1994-96 and was president of Space Imaging, later subsumed by DigitalGlobe.

DigitalGlobe’s licensing request is largely about keeping the U.S. commercial remote-sensing market competitive globally. “Many countries are making progress,” says Letitia Long, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA). “It is inevitable that we are going to get to this resolution, and so we want our U.S. companies to be able to compete.”

The NRO is focused on high-end challenges, such as extremely high-resolution products, advanced processing, light detection and ranging products, and hyperspectral imaging, underscoring the need for a healthy commercial market. For example, Sapp hinted that lidar technologies—using refracted light to form a high-fidelity picture—are being sent to space. The High-Altitude Lidar Operational Experiment (Haloe) payload, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), has periodically been deployed since 2010 to develop 3-D, high-resolution mapping products. Though she did not directly say the NRO has lidar sensors in orbit, Sapp introduced the Haloe project after noting that her agency often test-flies payloads for satellites in airborne applications to validate them prior to launch.

Originally deployed on a WB-57 in 2010, Haloe surveyed 72,000 sq. km (27,800 sq. mi.) of land in Afghanistan, roughly 10% of the country. The sensor was later hardened and fitted into a BD700, or Bombardier Global Express, which is capable of longer ranges, and deployed to Africa and Afghanistan. Haloe flew about 65 missions last fall, collecting information on “geographically restricted” areas in Afghanistan, Sapp said. The data, accurate to about 20-40 cm, was used to help plan for force protection, she noted.

At full capacity, the system could map 50% of Afghanistan in 90 days, Darpa Director Arati Prabhakar told Congress. Conventional systems would require 30 years for such a task.

In contrast to these more exotic efforts, products from DigitalGlobe form a foundation for the NGA’s databases. And while products from classified satellites are difficult to release even to allies, those from DigitalGlobe’s satellites can be shared. For example, NATO recently turned to the company to collect pictures of Russia’s military forces on the Ukrainian border.

Long points out that commercial airborne imaging products are not restricted by resolution limits.

Meanwhile, feeling a squeeze from Airbus Defense and Space, DigitalGlobe has signed an agreement with Canada-based MDA Corp. to sell its Radarsat-2 imagery in the U.S. In 2013, Airbus Defense and Space (then EADS Astrium) claimed about 3% of the very-high-resolution imagery market; that rose to nearly 15% last year, says Bernhard Brenner, head of geospatial intelligence for Airbus. At Geoint, Airbus unveiled a new synthetic aperture radar product, WorldDEM.

Airbus products are derived from a database formed by Terrasar-X and TanDEM-X collections; pixel size represents 12 meters. The database covers the entire Earth, from the North to South poles, Brenner says. Of the company’s goal to take on DigitalGlobe, potentially with U.S. customers, Brenner says, “it will be a nice fight this year.” Airbus is talking with potential U.S. partners, such as Harris Corp., to sell stateside.