US satellite imaging rules now allow high-quality maps

JC Torres - Jun 17, 2014, 5:45 am CDT
US satellite imaging rules now allow high-quality maps

Soon, you might be able to see that manhole on the road or you neighbor’s mailbox across the street in Google or Bing maps. This will all be thanks to the US government lifting the restrictions it imposed on satellite imaging, giving companies like Google and Microsoft the legal leeway to take satellite images with quality higher than they have been previously allowed.

The previous government ruling prohibited such companies from taking photos where objects 50 cm in length or less were visible. This was more of a precautionary measure against abusing such technology to violate security and privacy of the country’s denizens. Of course, it also meant that certain objects will be unidentifiable, much to the dismay of businesses who rely on such high-quality maps and images for their profit. But thanks to the efforts of one such company, they now have a reason to turn that frown upside down.

Imaging firm Digital Globe could perhaps be credited for pressing the US Department of Commerce to lift the ban. For Digital Globe, it was not just a matter of quality, but also of cutting costs. Before the restrictions were lifted, the only way to have aerial images of objects 50 cm and below would be to charter an aircraft, something that is not only time and money consuming but also severely limited. Now Digital Globe will be able to use its Worldview-3 satellite that will be launching in August to take snapshots of objects that will be of interest to its customers.

This change in government policy comes on the heels of Google announcing its bid to buy Skybox, also a satellite imaging company. Google’s and Skybox’s goals might be a bit more philanthropic. The images that will be produced are meant to help disaster relief efforts, while the satellites themselves are planned to boost Internet access in remote and inaccessible locations. Of course, Google’s Maps will also benefit from the acquisition in the long run.

It’s not all good news for everyone however, and, naturally, security and privacy concerns will take center stage soon. Aside from people worrying about spying, not just from their Internet lines, but also from up above, national security will also have to be considered. At the moment, the lifting of the restrictions seem to have no side effect on the requirement to blur or obscure sensitive locations around the world, and it is unlikely that this rule will be changed any time soon.


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