May 20, 2014 / 7:31 PM / 4 years ago

US official sees approval for higher resolution commercial imagery

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado, May 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. government will eventually approve a bid by commercial space imagery provider DigitalGlobe Inc to sell higher resolution satellite images, the head of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency said on Tuesday.

“It’s going to happen. Technology is moving in that direction,” NGA Director Letitia Long told an annual space conference hosted by the Space Foundation.

Long told reporters after her speech that NGA and other intelligence agencies backed the effort, but the White House was still coordinating the positions of the Pentagon, Commerce Department, State Department and other agencies. She said she did not know when a decision would be announced.

“It’s not a question of yes or no. It’s a question of when and how,” said a second senior U.S. official involved in the coordination process. Approving sales of sharper imagery involed myriad nuanced and complex issues, said the official.

DigitalGlobe has pressed the U.S. government for years to allow it to sell higher resolution imagery but officials have worried about undermining the intelligence advantage the government has from even higher resolution satellite images.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last month said that U.S. intelligence agencies had agreed to allow commercial providers to sell higher resolution imagery. Sources familiar with the process said they expected the government to approve a phased implementation over the course of this year.

Long said other countries were rapidly developing their own advanced imagery capabilities and she worried that U.S. industry could lose its competitive edge.

Colorado-based DigitalGlobe applied nearly one year ago for a license to increase the resolution of its imagery from 50 cm to 25 cm. The company has said it hopes the U.S. government will act quickly to finalize the decision. It is preparing to launch its new WorldView 3 satellite in August, which would allow the company to sell imagery accurate to 31 cm.

Long said allowing the company to sell higher resolution imagery could allow adversaries to track U.S. troop movements, but the license could be structured to more tightly control imagery in the event of a military conflict.

That, however, could pose problems for the company’s ability to market its product overseas, she said.

“It’s taking us a while because it’s a complex issue,” Long said. “We want to do the best thing for the U.S. commercially, as well as our nation’s security.”

Long also underscored the importance of the tools and processes used to analyze imagery, noting that simply having access to better resolution images would not necessarily give potential adversaries an advantage. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Andrew Hay)

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