Expert Advice:

NOAA Depends On It

by Kay Weston
Chief, Satellite Activities Branch
International & Interagency Affairs Office
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Silver Spring, Md.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) licenses U.S. commercial companies to operate private space-based remote sensing systems. NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Licensing Program seeks to ensure that commercial remote sensing systems are operated consistently within U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. NOAA works closely with other U.S. government agencies and additional stakeholders to ensure the development of a vibrant, growing and competitive U.S. commercial remote sensing industry to support United States interests, promote economic growth and create jobs. Commercial remote sensing offers numerous benefits, and more uses are being discovered all the time.

Since 1993, 23 licenses have been issued, along with over 40 license amendments; in addition, more than 30 foreign agreements (licensee contractual relationships with foreign partners) have been approved. In the foreseeable future, U.S. companies will continue to provide new products and services, and will play a key role in next-generation remote sensing.

NOAA’s Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES) was established in 2002 to provide a mechanism to disseminate information, advice and recommendations to the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere on matters relating to the U.S. commercial remote sensing satellite industry. ACCRES also reports on NOAA’s activities in carrying out the responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Commerce as set forth in the and Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 (15 U.S.C. Sections, 5621-5625).

The committee members serve in a representative capacity. Each is appointed by the Under Secretary of Commerce after consultation with the appropriate government agencies, industry and business organizations, the scientific community, and public interest groups. This means that the members provide expert advice that represents their respective viewpoints. The Committee meets at least twice each calendar year in Washington, D.C. ACCRES meetings, which consist of an open session and a closed session, are advertised in advance in the Federal Register, and members of the public are welcome to attend the open sessions. Minutes from past meetings and additional ACCRES information are available at

In 2004, NOAA requested that the committee study the interagency review process and NOAA’s interactions with its licensees to identify areas of concern and ways to improve the process. In March 2005, the committee provided its report to NOAA. It found that commercial remote sensing licensing decisions require extensive government coordination because of national security and foreign policy concerns, and the review of complex actions can take considerable time—too much time, according to the industry. The committee’s report provided recommendations on ways to improve the timeliness of the licensing process, as well as suggestions on how to improve the competitive position of the U.S. industry.

The Committee also examined advanced technologies that may be licensed by NOAA, noted “tenuous progress” in remote sensing commercialization as a result of offshore developments and U.S. national security/foreign policy equities, and noted “an accelerated rate of change in foreign remote sensing developments that have the potential to disadvantage U.S. industry, absent full implementation of the CRS Space Policy.”

ACCRES made a number of recommendations to NOAA to improve the timeliness of the licensing process, including:

1. Elimination of the 24-Hour Delay for Sub-0.82 PAN and Sub-3.2 MS Data Distribution as the top Priority

One of the NOAA license conditions is: “Without prior written approval from NOAA, no PAN data or products better than 0.82 meters GSD, or MS data or products better than 3.2 meters GSD from the System shall be delivered to a non-U.S. Government-approved entity within 24 hours from the time the data was collected by the satellite.” NOAA discussed the impacts of these license conditions with the companies and reported the feedback to ACCRES. At the September 13, 2005, ACCRES meeting, a sub-committee was formed to look at the 24-hour requirement and develop suggestions for NOAA on how to implement this recommendation.

2. Further Separation of “Novel” and “Rroutine” Licensing Requests

NOAA receives an average of 10-15 licensing actions each year (e.g., license, license amendment, foreign agreement) and has established procedures to fast-track “routine” licensing actions. Naturally, “novel” or precedent-setting actions take more time, and when appropriate, NOAA holds advance informal consultations.  NOAA also works with its interagency reviewers to expedite licensing actions to meet business time-sensitive requirements.

3. Further Evaluation of Technology Developments to Address Novel Technologies

New technologies (hyperspectral) continue to evolve in the remote sensing industry, and NOAA contracts studies to keep proactively abreast of new technologies and market trends, especially those that may have a future impact on remote sensing licensing policies and decisions. ACCRES reinforced the need for NOAA to review foreign, legal and regulatory developments to keep informed of the global competitiveness of the remote sensing industry in the United States.

4. Further Debate on the “Presumption of Approval”

To expedite the application review process, ACCRES recommended the “presumption of approval” by industry, unless notified differently by NOAA. The advantage of this approach is that decisions on licensing actions could be rendered quickly. However, in doing so, U.S. agencies may not have adequate time to analyze the technical aspects of a new license or foreign agreement. If the agencies are pressured to make a decision quickly, they may, to be safe, not approve some applications.

5. Licensing Workshop for relevant Agency Staff and Stakeholders

ACCRES recommended licensing workshops to increase the understanding of the licensing process among stakeholders. NOAA held two workshops in 2005, one in May for government personnel and one in September for industry representatives and government. Each workshop was well attended and not only increased understanding and communication between government and industry representatives, but also provided NOAA with a good opportunity for feedback and exchange of views.

In looking to the future, NOAA is in the process of vetting new ACCRES committee members prior to the next meeting, planned for March 6, 2006, in Washington, D.C. Key issues for which ACCRES needs to make recommendations to NOAA in 2006 include the 24-hour data delay requirement, potential private sector involvement in the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), (see Imaging Notes, Fall 2005), and global competitiveness of the U. S. industry.

NOAA had a high level of licensing activity in 2005 and expects 2006 to be another productive year. The ACCRES recommendations provide NOAA with “ground truth” and address many complex issues that help commercial industry remain competitive internationally.

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