Tahara Dawkins, director of commercial remote sensing regulatory affairs, NOAA

Key takeaways from NOAA’s presentations at Smallsat Symposium:

— NOAA now much better at keeping to 120-day license approval after falling behind with flood of New Space satellite systems in recent years.

— In 2011, it had 20 licensees; now it’s about 70. Licensed satellites in orbit now total around 200; by late 2018 that will be around 780.

— The fact that Hawkeye 360’s RF mapping constellation didn’t need a NOAA license doesn’t mean a similar system won’t. Advice: Fill out NOAA’s pre-consultation form for an assessment; turnaround time for these is less than a week.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — The chief of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Earth observation satellite licensing office told smallsat startups the agency is turning around license requests much more quickly after a period of adjustment.

But Tahara Dawkins also said the regulatory definition of “remote sensing” is struggling to keep up with a fast-developing technology and that many startups remain unaware that they may need a NOAA operating license.

Here is a summary of Dawkins’s remarks at the Smallsat Symposium, organized here by Satnews Events:

What kind of satellite systems need a NOAA license?

If you are a remote sensing company with a camera — it doesn’t matter if Earth is your mission, but you have the capability of imaging the Earth — you have to come get a license from NOAA. If you are not sure you fall into our regulations, contact us. Otherwise it could be that we come knocking at your door to say: Your satellite up there? You need a license for it.

If you have a remote sensing system and you are not government owned — meaning the data is owned by the government — you have to come to my office for a license or at least to see if you need a license.

It’s who owns the data. If NASA has sponsored you and you’re going to give the data away to Nasa, you still have to get a license. If NASA has sponsored you and they are going to buy all the data, you still have to get a license. If Nasa owns the data and it’s coming down Nasa’s pipe and it’s their data, then you do not need a NOAA license.

If you use the world “sold,” you are a commercial entity. We regulate private remote sensing systems. If you are not government, you should come to us at least to get a determination.

If you have the capability of getting Earth anywhere, in any pictures, you have to come to us. We do not regulate AIS, and we do not regulate anything other than the camera portion. What we care about is your ability to image the Earth. So hyperspectral and SAR [synthetic aperture radar], are included.

A lidar by itself would probably not [need a license]. A lidar by itself would probably not [need a license].

A moving regulatory target on what ‘remote sensing’ is

But there are companies out there very similar to Hawkeye [a planned constellation of radio-frequency-monitoring satellites, which was found not to need a NOAA license] that have had a license. It’s a matter of what are you capable of in totality. Come in and talk to us, it’s extremely important, especially now that technology is evolving so quickly. We have companies doing things out there that is not traditional remote sensing but are imaging the Earth.

For now, it doesn’t involve star trackers. The statute says for any camera other than hand-held — meaning someone with a camera in their hand — you need to come in and get a consultation. we have a pre-consultation form.

If there is no image coming we don’t have a lot of interest in my office today. But we want to see it before we tell you you don’t need a license.

We are looking at people who are subject to the control of, or in the jurisdiction of, the United States. That has been a hard question: Are you a U.S. person? What does that mean? It means that you have a presence in the United states, and administrative or operational control in the United States. It’s not a matter of where your ground stations are or your office. It’s administrative and operational control.

There are many gray areas. Come in to see us to determine it. We are really fast on the turnaround of whether you need a license or not. We are free.

Some companies think if they have their NOAA license, they have their government review. No: It does not relieve you of your obligation to get other licenses.

What’s a common error made by startup satellite companies you see?

We’ve had companies come to us without enough time to get a license before they launch. They would not be able to image the Earth until they got a NOAA license. We have a 120-day license process and we have companies come to us that are launching in 30 days and have a very novel technology where it’s almost impossible for us [to get it done before launch].

A few years ago you fell short of the 120-turnaround license evaluation. What happened?

We went through several years, especially with the bloom of smallsats, where that timeline just wasn’t being accomplished.

We were facing new problems.

What happened in this industry is that the government, and specifically NOAA, got really comfortable with large satellites that would last longer than five years, and these people knew the government really well and how to talk to us.

Then, all of a sudden — the next day, it seemed like — was this whole, new industry that came out. They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them and we went through this uncomfortable meeting stage.

What’s your total staffing?

I have an office of five people. Our workload has gone up by perhaps 1,000% in the last few years. In 2011 we had approximately 20 licenses. Today we have about 70. We have around 200 satellites on orbit, and by the end of 2018 we project that we’ll have around 780 on orbit.

And this is just for weather applications. Multiple commercial entries into the Earth observation market have kept NOAA’s hands full on licensing. Credit: NSR

There were new national security concerns, and there were companies that wanted to launch 300 or 1,000 satellites within the next five years. Also we have a global economy where you have a lot of foreign investment, and what does that mean for us?

We do review foreign agreements, but in the past that meant that you were selling a substantial amount of data to a foreign entity. That’s not exactly what it means anymore. It is the ability for a foreign person, either operationally or administratively, make decisions for your company.

What we really want to do is help mitigate risks. If we can talk to industry and find out what you’re doing to help us mitigate risks, it’s a win-win, instead of the government coming an and restricting your license.

In most cases, industry has already thought about that. What we have is a lot of really good U.S. companies that are not trying to damage the national security of the United States. A lot of what we’re concerned about, they’re also concerned about.

What is the license-turnaround time now?

Last year we signed a new MoU between the [US government agency partner agencies] with action-forcing timelines. Since that has been signed we have actually had only two licenses go over the 120-day period. Both of them were at the request of the companies.

Our timeline has significantly reduced. In calendar year 2017, the most precedent-setting application took only 92 days. The average is 96 days to complete our entire procedure.

So now I have a license. Then what?

We have failed miserably at telling companies about this. If you are a licensee and you are not launching within five years, you need to let us know, annually, if anything has changed in your license. If your board has changed, or the investments have changed, significant things like launch vehicles, or you change your spectrum — we don’t regulate that but we keep it in the license.

We have a paper audit quarterly and you have to update us on everything.

We also have data protection plans. How will you protect the data? This is evolving for us. we are beefing up our IT.

Shutter control, which is modified operations. How you are going to comply with our shutter control, launch inspections and enforcement activities.

Do you inspect all licensees’ ground stations, the world over?

Anywhere the data is coming down, we have the authority to inspect. It’s part of the contract you have on foreign soil, which tells them we have the authority to come and inspect.

For a bent-pipe facility where the data is not being encrypted, we do just an IT review to see that you are protecting the data. We fact check that what you tell us is happening.

Hockey stick or something less dramatic, the growth in the value-added services market appears on its way. Credit: Euroconsult

The we have customer ground stations. They are getting access to data and we want to see how they protect that, especially data that is not commercially available.

We’ve been really successful with countries that have regulatory regimes; they would rather let us do it — so far. There have been a couple of bumps in the road, especially now with a lot of mixing of ownership, with who owns the satellite when it goes up and when it’s being operated. But we have not have had any problems with these inspections.

Some countries, notably Canada, require a license for U.S. companies that have ground stations in Canada.

That is happening as industry becomes global and more countries are starting to regulate their industry. If you have a ground station in another country, that country also wants to take jurisdiction and control of regulations in a comparable way that the United States does. That’s a problem now that we are facing with many companies with something as simple as ground stations. If you want a ground station in Canada, they have jurisdiction over you.

Were working with three or four others countries to figure out whose law takes precedence. It’s a hard problem.

What about a European company downlinking data to a U.S. ground station, a bent-pipe downlink. Then the data is sent back to Europe. There may be a data archive for this company, in the United States.

A: In that case the US person would not have say so and so we would have no regulatory authority over that.

U.S. law prohibits imaging Israel at sharper than a 2-meter resolution. What’s the status of this?

That law has been on the books for a long time. It says you cannot sell anything that’s better than what’s available commercially internationally— set around 1998. And has stuck.

We have conducted studies at probably at least once every two years and could not find anything better than 2 meters until the last year. We’ve had some of our companies come to us with proof that this is being sold commercially. We are in the process of verifying what the companies are saying. It looks like that will be going down, probably in the very, very near future.