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This false-color photo taken by Landsat-8 on 26 July 2018 captured the rapid development of a “snow swamp” at Kluane National Park in Canada’s Yukon territory.

Joshua Stevens/U.S. Geological Survey/European Space Agency/NASA

Keep Landsat data free, panel urges Department of the Interior

A federal advisory panel today called on the Department of the Interior (DOI) to keep access to the imagery from its long-running Landsat satellite program free and open. Any effort to collect fees for such data would generate little money and would actively damage the U.S. remote sensing industry, the panel said in a report.

The Landsat program, which began in 1972 and is managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has produced the world’s longest-running series of satellite images, documenting the vast global changes caused by humanity over the past 47 years. Two Landsat satellites are now in orbit, taking 1200 images a day at a 30-meter resolution. In 2008, USGS stopped charging for use of Landsat images, creating a surge of academic research, along with users in government and industry. The move created about $2 billion in annual economic benefits, according to estimates from earlier this decade. The Landsat annual budget, meanwhile, is about $80 million.

In 2017, DOI asked its National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) to evaluate the possibility of once again imposing charges for using Landsat data, among other approaches to raising revenue. The move, when reported last year, was met with an outcry from scientists in the United States and abroad, along with federal and state agencies and nonprofits running a diverse range from the Wyoming state engineer to the Global Forest Observations Initiative. “The community was very vocal regarding the value of a free and open data policy,” said Frank Avila, a remote-sensing scientist at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield, Virginia, who leads the NGAC subcommittee that authored the report approved today.

The NGAC report echoes those sentiments, according to a presentation by Kevin Pomfret, a lawyer at Williams Mullen in Tysons, Virginia, who led the NGAC study and specializes in remote sensing. An effort to charge for Landsat data would largely drive users to free alternatives offered by the Europeans, while still costing the government a significant sum to run. The net result would be a drain on the U.S. economy, the study said. “Charging a fee for Landsat data will result in negative economic impacts,” Pomfret said at the meeting, and “would not be worth the economic, legal, societal, or political costs.”

The report also explores whether USGS, which runs Landsat, might instead keep the core Landsat data free, while charging for “value-added” imagery or specialized tasks carried out by the satellites. Such a move might raise revenue, the report says, but it could also require substantial regulatory or legal changes. Similarly, money could potentially be saved by hiring a contractor who could more efficiently manage digital access to the Landsat data, but USGS must study this idea more closely.

If DOI is concerned about the cost of the Landsat program, the report concludes, it would be better served by looking at how to reduce the cost of the satellites themselves, rather than attempting to reap revenue from their data. Although the next Landsat satellite, the ninth in the series, is set for a launch in December 2020, USGS and its partners, including NASA, are mulling what the future of the program should look like, especially given the rise of competitors such as the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites and commercial constellations like Planet. A study on the program’s future architecture is due later this year.

Although the NGAC report was approved unanimously by the panel’s members and will be available online this week, it is ultimately up to DOI to decide whether it will go through with any fees, says Timothy Newman, program coordinator for national land imaging at USGS. But given the report and the nearly universal negative reaction to charging fees, he says, “The reality is that I just don’t see it happening.”