The demand for high-quality satellite images is higher than ever and more companies implementing cutting-edge technologies to monitor Earth. Good old optoelectronic satellites cant satisfy the growing demand for Earth observation at any particular moment of time due to certain technical limitations. They fail to catch images independently of weather conditions and the amount of sunlight.
Unlike optical systems that rely on reflected solar radiation or thermal radiation emitted by Earth, imaging radar instruments work independently of light and heat. Synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) uses microwave radiation and can see through clouds, trees canopy, ground, volcanic ash or smoke and can function any time day or night. So far, the major mission of SAR projects has been to fill the gaps left by optoelectronic satellites.
Until recent global technological breakthrough the use of SAR imagery was very limited for several reasons, including:
- complexities of data processing
- huge costs involved
- complex engineering challenges
But now it has become much more affordable and easier to use. Numerous startups continue to emerge and propose their solutions for a wide spectrum of industries:
Data on oil storage volumes, oil production plants, logistics sites, number of vehicles on the parking lots, harvest events, etc.
Data on damage due to natural disasters, flooded agricultural regions, building collapse risks, etc.
Data on oil pipeline construction, collapse risks at fracking sites, offshore oil and gas exploration.
Data on icebergs and their locations, wind speeds, wave heights, illegal fishing vessel detection, ice conditions, etc.
Data on road networks, powerline construction & maintenance, dam integrity, land subsidence and other anomalies.
Data on ground subsidence, illegal mining activities, changes in open-pit mine’s volume, surface water extent, etc.
Data on oil spills, unreported fishing, search & rescue incidents, dark vessel detection, illegal construction sites, unauthorized cargo shipment, identify and map the extent of underground tunnels compromising border or facility security, etc.
- Search & Rescue
Narrow search areas and enable Search and Rescue professionals to identify missing aircraft, vehicles and ships to save lives.
Except examples listed above, the SAR imagery, as a part of GIS market, has an immense number of applications in almost every aspect of life. Here you can find more than a thousand applications and uses. Needless to say how powerful this tool is.
One thing is clear. When a sufficient number of SAR satellites (constellations) get launched into orbit (as planned by ICEYE, Capella Space, Umbra and other companies), the frequency of the Earth monitoring will become daily. No need to wait any longer for a data update for a particular region for several days or weeks, the world will not be the same as we know it today. The way people are doing business around the globe is going to change forever.
If you think of all the things that can be done with the mass deployment of SAR technologies, it will probably make you shudder. Will the multiple benefits of using SAR imagery outweigh the risks associated with it? It’s hard to tell. This scope of surveillance can be way too scary when used by: competing corporations, military organizations, media magnates and etc..
As with any technology, the SAR imagery should raise concerns about the possibilities of using it for malicious purposes. Imagine the situation when your personality, because whatever the reason, becomes a point of great interest. It is possible that anyone can potentially buy the satellite images and use them to identify patterns of your life, understand your habits to predict future actions. For us, that sounds way too scary.
It’s strange that such a radical change isn’t making headlines. The world is getting transformed into some form of science fiction dystopia, and no one seems to be sounding the alarm. Is the Apocalypse due to SAR imagery likely to happen soon? Are there space laws and regulations that restrict buying & selling such data, thereby preventing this technology from throwing the world into chaos?
Let’s figure this out. Luckily, some space experts, including Lisa Kucher (Legal/Business Analyst) and Rakesh Bhan (SAR Satellites/Airborne Systems Expert) helped us clarify the most important nuances of managing SAR imagery from the legal point of view. Read on to find out more about it.
What does it take to successfully launch a small satellite project that uses SAR technology?
It’s not that easy to launch even a small satellite project with SAR technologies. Even if engineering obstacles have been overcome and money matters have been resolved, it takes a space lawyer to handle all the constraints imposed by a multitude of regulations and requirements. For a small company, it might be quite a hassle to get through the legal jungle.
What issues might arise when you’re ready to launch your satellite into space?
Anything is possible, from radio frequency interference to a lack of national legislation on space activities in your country.
Besides, no one will grant your company a license to send a satellite into space unless you design it fully mindful of all current government regulations and international space treaties. Naturally, the scale of all the hassle involved when launching a SAR project will depend primarily on your country.
What country has the most rigorous satellite imagery regulations?
You can expect the regulations to be the strictest in the United States (export license and proof of intended use required). The US has one of the more complex and rigorous export control systems. American companies that are planning to launch a spaceborne remote sensing project, need a license from such government agencies and regulatory regimes as:
- ITAR (The International Traffic in Arms Regulations)
- FCC (The Federal Communications Commission)
- NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
- The U.S. Commerce Department
However, remote sensing regulations for commercial use have been recently revised in the USA. On May 19, 2020, the revised version was published by the NOAA. These regulations are now more favorable towards SAR, with many barriers having finally been relaxed or eliminated altogether. It was done primarily to ensure that the American companies stay competitive while other space powers of the world aren’t dormant.
What about Buying & Selling SAR Data?
When asked about the regulations related to SAR images, a space lawyer assured us that the radar and items the radar integrates into (satellites, etc.) are controlled as significant military equipment under the ITAR. She assumes the imaging produced would be controlled as well. The exporting capability would require licensing from the US State Department and some additional authorizations like a signature from the end-user stating they won’t do anything not authorized by the US export license. An export license will be specific to an end-user. The satellite company has to know these things before it can even apply.
Will there be any import restrictions for this?
Probably not. Mostly, it’s controlled on the export side. Therefore, you should always start by looking at the regulations in the country that is exporting the data. For example, if the US wants to import SAR images from the UK, you would start by looking at if the UK allows them to be sold/sent. Importing is very seldom the issue specific to an end-use (system) and end-user (company).
The country restrictions would be the same as for all other US exports (China, Russia, Crimea region of Ukraine, Cuba, etc.) but this license would probably be harder to get or at least take more time and explanation because of the sensitive nature of the technology.
What are legislative restrictions for foreign companies intending to sell SAR data in the US?
Foreign companies don’t need any specific approval or licenses from American agencies to import SAR data into the US. If there is an American company that is planning to sell SAR data in the USA, it needs to get permission from ITAR.
There aren’t any preferences for certain countries as providers of the SAR data when it comes to the American regulations. However, restrictions do exist. For example, the USA can’t import Chinese data. Also, there are certain likes/dislikes about SAR providers: private companies are thought to provide data of worse quality than governmental companies.
American satellite companies adhere to these regulations when exporting images to other countries. To be compliant with country restrictions, they also use The Kyl–Bingaman Amendment (KBA).
What is the permitted resolution of SAR images?
To make sure SAR data isn’t used to spy on people, it must deliver a macro view of the Earth only. According to the American standards, 50 cm resolution is permitted for SAR technology. This enables the detection of objects like ships, railcars, aircrafts, but makes it impossible to discern people, license plates and any other PII. The U.S. Commerce Department is the body that is supposed to check the resolution (number of pixels) of SAR data for commercial use.
Capella Space is the company that offers SAR images with the highest resolution on the market, 50 cm x 50 cm. Prior to Capella, the best resolution on the market was 1 m x 25 cm.
*We can add here that American company Umbra is already granted a license on specific frequency bandwidth and working on a solution to provide images with resolution below 25 cm. Some test images with resolution 15 cm are available on their Facebook page.
Are there any restrictions related to critical or military infrastructure?
There is The Open Sky Treaty, which is accepted by several countries. It doesn’t allow them to sell SAR images with military objects to opponent countries.
Also, any item that could have a military or defence application and is controlled for export is on the US Munitions List, which is part of the International Traffic and Arms Regulations (ITAR). SAR can be found in the military electronics category and under satellites. The abbreviation “SAR” has an asterisk in front of it. It specifies that the item is “Significant Military Equipment” which requires not only an export license from the US State Department but also a form DSP 83 (an extra authorization for “SME” ).
End items, components, and the technology for creating the item are all controlled. If something is not listed on the USML, it may still be controlled for export, but it will be under the Commerce Control List which is the domain of the US Department of Commerce. The analysis for exporting an item, the data generated by an item, its parts, and the technology for creating an item all require situational details and a specific analysis to determine:
– when a license is needed
– what country you can export to
– how hard that will be.
Also, let’s check Remote Sensing Principles. In terms of international law, every country has a right to remotely sense the Earth freely, its legislative regulation depends on how this data will be used. For example, if images of the powerplant are used for development or production purposes, then it will be controlled. Or if you use it for defeating the conflicting country – then the Security Intelligence Law will be applicable. What is interesting in this case is that the country which is sensed has the right to have these images, but it’s not mentioned if you have a right to restrict it in any way.
Are there any restrictions in selling sub metric data (with resolution less than 1m) in the EU?
Actually, there isn’t any law entry connected with selling data. European laws only regulate selling technical documentation, like blueprints necessary for building satellites, but not its product – imagery. The situation is different in the USA as they have infinitely more regulations in this sphere and much more commercial standing on the international satellite market and are much more technologically advanced.
Are there any international space laws that control satellite imagery in the EU?
There is a general international space law and every country has its own national laws which cannot be contrary to international law.
Many regulations regarding the use of satellite data have been enacted at different levels. Most countries with active commercial sectors have a ‘remote sensing’ act of one kind or another that regulates the business. However, no one really controls the sellers of SAR imagery. Sure, much depends on the country, but if you want to buy such data, you will find the way to do it. After all, there are no clear restrictions and the laws can be interpreted in different ways. So far, 50×50 cm is the highest resolution of SAR images technically available, which means that it has nothing to do with no privacy infringement. Still, this technology will soon get improved to deliver clear images of even higher resolution, without any noice or peckles. When it happens, spying on people using SAR data will be possible. Something should be done to set restrictions on the resolution of such data and make sure each sale of these images is strictly controlled.
With more and more satellites being launched into space both by governments and private companies, space laws are expected to be revised over and over again to minimize any risks involved. But we have certain doubts about the effectiveness of any type of control or regulation. Just look on your mobile phone, handy technology, regulates by many ways and still it spy’s on you in different ways.
*We express our deep gratitude to all the experts who helped with this difficult issue. Including Lisa Kucher – Legal/Business Analyst, Rakesh Bhan – SAR Satellites/Airborne Systems Expert, Gabe Dominocielo – Co-Founder of Umbra, Bailey (Smith) Reichelt – Space Lawyer, International Trade & Business Attorney and others.
Written by Alexandra Somik – Independent journalist, Sr. Associate Editor and Sergii Kenzorov – Founder, Independent journalist, Editor-in-Chief.