Will You Have To Pay For Landsat Data?

Shetland Islands, Scotland. data acquired by Landsat 8 on 27 April 2014. Data courtesy of NASA/USGA.

Interesting discussions are taking place in the US on the position of free-to-access data which has the potential to affect everyone working in the downstream industry.

The US Government is once again exploring the possibility of reintroducing charges for accessing Landsat data. It was reported by the Landsat Advisory Group at the National Geospatial Advisory Committee meeting on the 3rd and 4th April 2018 that the Department of Interior asked them, last July, to look at whether the costs of Landsat could be recovered from its users.

It’s not the first time that this has been looked at since Landsat was made free-to-access in 2008. We’ve previously written about how free-to-access data, does not mean free data, but the lack of a usage charge saw an explosion in the use of this data. However, the political and industry backdrop is different this time. Anyone who has been following President Trump’s space policy will be aware of the shift in focus, and funding, away from Earth Observation (EO). Hence, the obvious appeal of recovering the costs from Landsat users to allow the programme to continue. It was reported at the NASA 2019 Budget Hearing last month that everything was on track for the launch of Landsat-9 in December 2020.

The Landsat Advisory Group reported it was working on three tasks in relation to this, which are due to be reported on later this year:

  1. Review the Landsat user community’s willingness-to-pay.
  2. Review the results of their previous paper ‘Statement on Landsat Data Use and Charges from 2012 and any other relevant studies looking at potential for users to pay.
  3. Update the results of 2011 study on The Users, Uses, and Value of Landsat and Other Moderate-Resolution Satellite Imagery in the United States.

At the last review, the Statement on Landsat Data Use and Charges produced a recommendation that Landsat data must continue to be distributed at no cost. There were a number of reasons given at the time including:

  • Severely restrict data use.
  • Cost more than the amount of revenue generated by the charges.
  • Stifle innovation and business activity that creates jobs.
  • Inhibit data analysis in scientific and technical fields.
  • Negatively impact international relations relating to national, homeland, and food Security.
  • Negatively impact U.S. standing as the leader in space technology.

Whilst a lot of these reasons are still relevant today, it’s undeniable that the industry landscape has changed in the last six years due to the expansion of commercial satellite providers. Part of the reason that Landsat, and other similar national satellites, were launched by originally government organisations is commercial operators did not have the relevant funding, capability or business model to do so. This has changed to a degree and last week in an article in spacenews.com they noted that 30 companies operating today who have launched, or have announced their intention to launch, EO satellites. These range from the high resolution Worldview satellites owned by DigitalGlobe, though Planet’s large cubesat constellation to the small specialist constellations such as ICEYE.

Governments are still the major buyers of commercial data, and as the amount of this data continues to increase it’s not surprise to see existing free-to-access business models being revisited. Not all of these changes are negative, for example, recent changes to the way ESA accesses third party missions, including from commercial suppliers, means startups and incubators can use this data for building services as they transition from research and development.

So if this happens and the US start charging for Landsat, does it matter? Well, yes it does!

Landsat has an unrivalled archive utilised by users across the globe and any fees will have negative implications for:

  • Encouraging the wider uptake of Earth Observation through schools and students which could harm the future generation of scientific researchers
  • Scientific research as scientists will potenitally go back to using smaller, or even the minimum necessary, data sets
  • Businesses who’ve developed services based on Landsat data, and we’d include ourselves in this group. Clearly, any costs of data will need to be passed onto clients and so this could change, or even destroy, business models.
  • See a switch from US Landsat to the EU’s Copernicus data as the go to free-to-access data source, meaning significant reduced time series options.

Whilst this has been discussed before, and the US have withdrawn from the edge, this time the world is different and everyone should be aware that there is a real potential that Landsat data could be charged for as early as next year. The satellite data industry could be about to have another twist. Are you ready?

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