U.S. Government Could Start Charging for Landsat Data

Landsat 8 (Credit: NASA)

The Trump Administration is considering re-imposing fees for Landsat images that were eliminated in 2008.

The US government is considering whether to charge for access to two widely used sources of remote-sensing imagery: the Landsat satellites operated by the US Geological Survey (USGS) and an aerial-survey programme run by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Officials at the Department of the Interior, which oversees the USGS, have asked a federal advisory committee to explore how putting a price on Landsat data might affect scientists and other users; the panel’s analysis is due later this year. And the USDA is contemplating a plan to institute fees for its data as early as 2019.

Some scientists who work with the data sets fear that changes in access could impair a wide range of research on the environment, conservation, agriculture and public health. “It would be just a huge setback,” says Thomas Loveland, a remote-sensing scientist who recently retired from the USGS in Sioux Falls, South Dakota….

Since the USGS made the data freely available, the rate at which users download it has jumped 100-fold. The images have enabled groundbreaking studies of changes in forests, surface water, and cities, among other topics. Searching Google Scholar for “Landsat” turns up nearly 100,000 papers published since 2008.

A USGS survey of Landsat users released in 2013 found that the free distribution of Landsat imagery generates more than US$2 billion of economic benefit annually — dwarfing the programme’s current annual budget of roughly $80 million. More than half of the nearly 13,500 survey respondents were academics, and the majority lived outside the United States.

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  • Geoff T

    As a regular user of Landsat 7 and 8 data for oceanographic purposes (oil slick detection and tracking) my response is; bugger.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    Wonder how much it will cost.

  • Douglas Messier

    As much as this fits into the run government like a business ethos of this administration, I think the real aim is to limit environmental and health monitoring. Sort of a bookend to their efforts to repeal as many environmental, health and safety regulations as possible. Fewer meddling scientists to discover the damage being done.

  • Jeff2Space

    As the old saying goes: If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.

  • Jeff2Space

    The stupid thing is that this data was paid for by the US taxpayer. To charge us all again to access data that we’ve already paid for just seems wrong. This is doubly true in this day and age where it costs very little to host massive amounts of data on the Internet for people to download.

  • redneck

    And as the other old saying goes: if you don’t watch your money, you won’t have any to watch.

  • duheagle

    There are a lot of outfits that use both Landsat and other sources of Earth-observation data to perform analyses of various sorts that are subsequently sold to a wide variety of targeted clienteles. The post that follows this one, in fact, is about one such arrangement. Given that these commercial analysis outfits are willing and able to pay for such data, there’s not much logic in the government giving it away for free. That simultaneously constitutes a subsidy to a particular industry sector – data users – and predatory competition to another – commercial data gatherers. The rationale for the continued existence of the Landsat program is, I think, very much open to question.

    As for academics, they’re always looking for another handout. I would recommend they establish relationships with the aforementioned commercial analysis outfits. The latter should be quite interested in funding research proposals that could improve their own businesses. Agricultural enterprises have been doing this for decades. Given that many of the commercial uses of Landsat data are agriculture-oriented anyway, it’s hardly a stretch to suggest increasing these sorts of coalitions.

    In any event, a majority of the academics using the free Landsat data are said to be foreign nationals. I see no reason why foreigners should be dragging free on a program funded by U.S. taxpayers.