Advisory Committee Recommends Keeping Landsat Data Free

Landsat 8 (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Citing a combination of negligible revenues and negative economic impacts on the economy, an Interior Department advisory committee has recommended that the government not implement fees for the use of data from the Landsat 8 and 9 satellites.

The National Geospatial Advisory Committee’s (NGAC) Landsat Advisory Group (LAG)  concluded “that the revenue obtained for charging a fee for Landsat Earth imaging data would not be worth the economic, legal, societal or political costs that would be incurred, particularly given the measures that would need to be required to change applicable law and regulation or to revoke internationally lauded and followed data policy.”

While the committee recommended keeping standard Landsat data free, it recommended further study of three revenue generating and cost saving options:

  • selling enhanced imagery products involving improved spatial, spectral, or temporal resolution and tailored tasking options from sensors on board Landsat satellites;
  • transitioning the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center from a government-owned, contractor operated facility to one owned and operated by a contractor; and,
  • using emerging technologies to reduce the cost of Landsat sensors and systems on future satellites.

In a 22-page report, the committee said that due to the government’s free and open data policies, most of Landsat’s vast data archive has already been acquired by multiple organizations and wide distributed.

“If USGS attempted to charge for imagery in the archive, other organizations that currently possess the archive could provide it at lower prices or for free, undercutting any government revenue from the existing archive,” the report stated.

Many users of Landsat data — including academia, government agencies and non-government users — do not have the resources to pay fees. They would be thus driven to use data from the European Commission’s (EC) Sentinel satellites, diminishing the demand for and use of Landsat data.

A key problem with that option is that Sentinel satellites were designed to complement, not replace, the data provided by the Landsat satellites. A decision to charge for Landsat data also could  result in the EC charging for Sentinel data.

Following the passage of the Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act in 1984, orders for Landsat data decreased significantly as the government began charging fees,the report said. Scientists working on long-term and long-range studies were no longer able to afford data sets.

“Some of the largest users of Landsat data are U.S. Government agencies,” the report added. “Charging them for Landsat will not generate any new revenue, but will simply shift government funds from one agency to another.”

A vibrant commercial data industry has also developed since the decision was made to stop charging fees.

“The decision in 2008 to make Landsat data freely available to the public set global expectations for the availability of free high-quality imagery, and sparked a wave of commercial activity based on this opportunity,” the report said.

“Commercial U.S. satellite image analysis companies Orbital Insight, Descartes Labs, SpaceKnow, GDA Corporation, Esri, and U.S. commercial satellite companies DigitalGlobe (now Maxar Technologies), Planet, AstroDigital, BlackSky and others all provide Landsat data through their platforms and offer various levels of value-added products based on free and open Landsat imagery,” the review added.

The committee said the annual societal benefit of cost free Landsat data to U.S. users in 2011 was estimated at approximately $1.8 billion in 2011. That was two times greater than the cost of building and launching Landsat 8 in 2006.

Although LEAG recommended further study of whether USGS should charge for enhanced Landsat data and targeting of instruments, it also identified the following challenges

  • increased cost of producing the enhanced data;
  • uncertainty over the size the market; and,
  • competition with the private sector.

The committee said there were opportunities for cost savings and more efficient delivery of data but also challenges in using a contractor-owned and -operated system.

“This approach depends upon the ability of private industry to develop and implement a successful business model and upon any legal changes required including amending the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act,” the report stated.

The report’s executive summary is below.

Evaluation of a Range of Landsat Data Cost Sharing Models
A Report of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee
Landsat Advisory Group
June 2019
Full Report

Executive Summary

In early 2017, Department of the Interior (DOI) leadership requested that U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) consider possibilities for fee recovery for Landsat data. Accordingly, USGS asked the Landsat Advisory Group (LAG), subcommittee of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC), to review the results from recent publications in consideration of the plausibility of fee recovery for Landsat data. Subsequently, in August of 2018, the USGS modified the request to invite the LAG “to consider a range of possible Landsat data cost sharing models that may include, but are not limited to: resource leveraging for data processing, management, and distribution; resource leveraging for satellite ground mission development and operations; and various forms of fee recovery models for different market sectors.” This report presents the findings of the LAG regarding the viability of several different Landsat cost sharing alternatives, as well as identifying a potentially more fruitful approach to reducing the overall cost of Landsat missions through the use of emerging and increasingly proven technologies.

The paper considers two types of fee recovery alternatives:

  1. Charging fees for Landsat data with the characteristics of Landsat 8 and 9, and
  2. Charging fees for “enhanced” Landsat data such as improved spatial or spectral resolution over Landsat 8 and9, or tailored image-collection requests.

The LAG’s findings and recommendation regarding charging fees for Landsat data with the characteristics of Landsat 8 and 9 are:

Finding: The LAG believes that charging a fee for Landsat data will generate little net revenue. The net revenue would potentially be less than the government costs incurred to implement the fee.

Finding: The LAG believes that charging a fee for Landsat data will result in negative economic impacts to the U.S. commercial remote sensing satellite and value-added industries.

Finding:
The LAG believes that given existing statutory and regulatory constraints, the Federal Government could not readily charge for Landsat data without substantive changes in both law and regulations.

Finding: The LAG believes that the revenue obtained for charging a fee for Landsat data would not be worth the economic, legal, societal or political costs that would be incurred, particularly given the measures that would need to be required to change applicable law and regulation or to revoke internationally lauded and followed data policy.

Recommendation: The LAG recommends that the Department of the Interior not implement any fees for Landsat data with the characteristics of Landsat 8 and 9.

The LAG’s finding and recommendation regarding charging for “enhanced” Landsat data is:

Finding: The LAG believes that there may be an opportunity to generate revenue by selling “enhanced” imagery products and tailored tasking options from sensors onboard Landsat satellites while still making standard Landsat 8 and 9 imagery data free and openly available. However, there are apparent and significant concerns or risks that could make such an option difficult to implement.

Recommendation: The LAG recommends further review of these concerns if this approach is considered.

The paper also examined other approaches to cost-recovery or cost-avoidance for the Landsat program. The LAG’s findings and recommendation on such approaches are:

Finding: The LAG believes that moving from the current Government-owned, Contractor-operated (GOCO) business model, to a Contractor-owned, Contractor-operated (COCO) business model could provide for more efficient delivery of Landsat data and provision of data management services at lower costs.

Recommendation: The LAG recommends that further research is needed to examine the benefits and costs of transitioning from GOCO to COCO at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.

Finding: The LAG believes a Public Private Partnership could allow the U.S. Government to benefit from some of the efficiencies of the private sector industry, while maintaining Landsat continuity. It could also preserve public/open availability of Landsat-quality data. However, this approach depends upon the ability of private industry to develop and implement a successful business model and upon any legal changes required including amending the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act.

Recommendation: The LAG recommends that further research is needed to determine if a sufficient business case exists and what legal changes are required to support exploration of the creation of public-private partnership(s).

In conclusion, as the overall motivation for examining cost sharing alternatives is to reduce the public expenditures required to sustain Landsat data collections and continuity, the LAG believes that considering the findings of this report, a more significant study would be to analyze how the costs of building and launching Landsat sensors could be reduced, rather than focusing on cost sharing of operations. This is consistent with the LAG recommendation made in April of 2018, “The U.S. Government should aggressively investigate rapidly emerging and increasingly proven technologies which could greatly reduce the cost of Landsat missions.”