SpaceX’s Earth views need a license now, probably thanks to the Tesla stunt

Friday morning, SpaceX was prepping for what should have been an otherwise routine launch — sending 10 satellites into orbit for long-time customer Iridium — when the company made a strange announcement. During the livestream leading up to the mission, a SpaceX employee explained that the company would have to cut off footage from the Falcon 9 rocket once the vehicle reached orbit. And the host said restrictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were to blame.

Viewers were immediately confused. SpaceX had cut off livestreams early before — but only for national security reasons. Why was NOAA, an agency devoted to studying the Earth’s climate and oceans, getting involved in the launch of commercial communications satellites?

NOAA had recently told the company to get a license for the cameras on the rocket, SpaceX said after the launch. The reason? The cameras take video of the Earth from orbit, and NOAA regulates imagery of Earth taken from space, thanks to a 26-year-old law. However, this was the first time SpaceX needed to get a license for its cameras. SpaceX filed a license application just four days before the launch, but NOAA couldn’t approve the use of the cameras in time. (Reviews can take up to 120 days, NOAA says.) And so there was a blackout when the Falcon 9 reached orbit.

What changed? SpaceX and other rocket companies have been livestreaming their launches from orbit for years now, and practically all show Earth in the background. Well, it’s possible that SpaceX may be in NOAA’s crosshairs because of the company’s recent Falcon Heavy launch and famous Starman livestream. In February, SpaceX aired live footage of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla in space for hours, with Earth prominently featured in the background. It got massive amounts of attention — and that may have triggered NOAA to reach out to SpaceX, requiring the company to get a license for its cameras, according to a report from SpacePolicyOnline.com.

However, SpaceX says it didn’t need to get a NOAA license for its most recent launch for NASA, which sent supplies to the International Space Station on Monday. Government launches — like the ones SpaceX does for NASA — are exempt from some of the regulations of a commercial mission. But SpaceX does lots of commercial missions, as does its rival the United Launch Alliance and other launch providers. And it looks like all of those launches will need a NOAA license in order to livestream. “Now that launch companies are putting video cameras on stage 2 rockets that reach an on-orbit status, all such launches will be held to the requirements of the law and its conditions,” NOAA said in a statement on March 30th.

NOAA must issue licenses for any commercial spacecraft that does “remote sensing” of the Earth — or basically any vehicle that takes pictures or video of the ground from space, thanks to a law passed by the US government in 1992. At the time, private companies were interested in launching Earth-imaging satellites to make money, but the US was worried that they might inadvertently snap pictures of, say, troop movements overseas, and then sell that data to a foreign government. So a licensing system was put in place under NOAA to make sure these companies didn’t improperly share any sensitive government information.

Of course, back in 1992, satellite imaging technology wasn’t very advanced and there weren’t that many companies that wanted to do it. Fast forward to today, and new space companies are popping up everywhere to image the Earth from space. One company called Planet has hundreds of small satellites in orbit mapping the entire Earth’s surface every day. And companies are becoming more ambitious, too. Some want to do space-to-space remote sensing, or using satellites to take pictures of other objects in space. Others want to observe Earth in infrared light from orbit.

“Originally when the law was put into place, that field was very much in its infancy, and it was a positive step forward to enable it to happen at all,” Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in space security, tells The Verge. “But in the decade since, the technology has rapidly progressed and there are types of remote sensing that are being done that weren’t really envisioned in the law.”

Meanwhile, rocket launch livestreams have become super popular — and common. In fact, it’s weird not to show footage from a vehicle that’s flying to space these days. However, the 1992 law doesn’t really address how to regulate cameras on rockets, because that wasn’t envisioned when the law was written, Weeden says. Once companies started livestreaming from their rockets — showing views of Earth from orbit — that may have crossed the threshold into NOAA regulation territory. So it’s possible that SpaceX and other commercial rocket companies have needed licenses for the cameras on their rockets this whole time, and NOAA is just now noticing.



A screenshot from SpaceX’s Iridium-5 launch before the livestream was cut off
Image: SpaceX

There’s still some confusion around the livestream saga, though. NOAA claims that SpaceX was the one to reach out to the agency about getting a license, not the other way around. “It was SpaceX that came to us,” Tahara Dawkins, the director of NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office said at a meeting Tuesday, according to Space News. “It wasn’t NOAA that went out to them and said, ‘Hey, stop, you’re going to need a license.’” SpaceX disagrees. A company spokesperson, speaking on background, says it only filed an application after NOAA said the cameras qualified as a “remote sensing space system” and needed a license. (We asked NOAA for further clarification and will update the story if we hear back.)

Plus, neither NOAA nor SpaceX will admit that the Falcon Heavy launch was what started this chain of events, but Weeden argues it’s the likeliest catalyst. “Starman probably attracted so much attention that someone at NOAA or someone at SpaceX realized they may have crossed that threshold to start thinking about that license,” he says. When asked during Tuesday’s meeting if SpaceX had broken the law with its past broadcasts from space, NOAA’s Dawkins said “she would not know without looking specifically at what took place,” according to SpacePolicyOnline.com.

NOAA says it will work with companies to make sure they are properly licensed to livestream from space and that these broadcasts don’t hinder national security. However, Weeden argues this whole ordeal demonstrates why the laws surrounding remote sensing need an update. Rocket livestreams are usually low resolution and don’t provide much detail of Earth. And the argument for protecting national security doesn’t quite work, either, since other countries have put their own Earth-imaging satellites into orbit — and they’re not obligated to get US licenses. “The minute that other satellites go up that don’t fall under US law, [the law] doesn’t really prevent advisories from getting intelligence and it just hinders US industry,” says Weeden. “That’s the core public policy debate right now.”

And this area of regulation is something that the current administration is trying to streamline, too. The National Space Council met in February to discuss reforming regulations surrounding the commercial space industry. One recommendation from the meeting was to update the framework for getting licenses for rockets and spacecraft. So it’s possible some changes to this process may be coming soon.

It’s not clear when those changes will come. SpaceX’s next commercial launch is scheduled for the end of April. The company declined to say if they’d filed to get licenses for cameras for that launch.

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Florida AG Wants a Threat-Reporting App for Students

(TNS) — WASHINGTON — Florida officials are teaming up with student software developers to create a new social media application aimed at thwarting the next Parkland-like shooting.

Florida Attorney General Pamela Bondi told President Donald Trump Thursday that she is working with a group of Florida students on an app making it easy for kids on social media platforms like Snapchat to instantly report threats from dangerous classmates and others directly to the appropriate Florida law enforcement agency.

“Kids now are on social media,” Bondi said. “There were so many warning signs on Snapchat, on Twitter, on Instagram. They were sending them to all different sources.”

It’s one of several initiatives Bondi said Florida lawmakers are working on to protect students and citizens in the wake of last week’s high school shooting that killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They also include passing “red flag laws” that allow the seizure of guns before people can commit acts of violence.

Bondi shared the proposals during a meeting with Trump and other state and local officials who were at the White House discussing school safety and gun reform.

Bondi said the app would cost $100,000 to develop a half a million a year to maintain, all of which is already written into the state’s House and Senate budget. As Bondi spoke, Trump repeated “good” several times, adding that more attention had to be paid to what young people are consuming online.

“We have to look at the internet because a lot of bad things are happening to young kids and young minds and their minds are being formed, and we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it,” Trump said. “And also video games. I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts. And you go one further step and that’s the movies … maybe they have to put a rating system for that.”

Bondi said she is also working to rewrite Florida’s Baker Act, which gives powers to the police to temporarily seize firearms from people with mental illness. She also wants to bring the Gun Violence Restraining Order to Florida. The law, which is in place in California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut, can be used to temporarily take guns away from people a judge deems a threat to themselves or others.

“So this would not have worked the way it’s currently constituted. This would not have worked with Cruz as it’s currently constituted,” Trump said, nodding. “So you’re going to make changes.”

©2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


































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Texas A&M building a Drone Program for Public Safety

Lost hikers found, swimmers rescued with a deployed floatation device, wildfires located from above. Headlines about emergency responders using small, unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) are increasingly common around the world, but the need for accurate, reliable information to inform the many decisions that must be made to implement this exciting new technology effectively can be hard to come by, and expensive.

Texas A&M now offers a five-hour, 0.5 CEU credit online course designed to enable emergency managers to make strategic decisions about starting a sUAS program. The course is unique in that it is not about flying, passing a Part 107 license, or using mapping software but rather about how to define missions for sUAS, train and equip for those missions, and understand the legal, regulatory, and community support ramifications. It specifically covers the types of missions that different small UAS have been used for, what are the practical considerations in buying a small UAS or working with a drone company, what kind of manpower and administrative impact sUAS will have, and best practices for training and deploying. The course distills lessons learned by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue members’ deployments to more than 15 disasters, starting with Hurricane Katrina (2005) and including Fukushima Daiichi, as well as nearly 400 sorties at Hurricanes Harvey and Irma–all at the request of local agencies, and closely coordinated with existing assets.

While aimed at emergency professionals, the course offers valuable insights for independent operators looking to serve emergency responders. The course can be taken online, or in conjunction with hands-on classes that are also being offered. The course costs $200, and is the first in an online certificate program being co-developed by Texas A&M Humanitarian Robotics and AI Laboratory and Florida State University Center for Disaster Risk Policy in conjunction with the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, a nonprofit organization created to study and implement robotic technology in disaster and emergency response.

To learn more or register, see http://teesedge.tamu.edu/modules/shop/index.html?action=section&OfferingID=81&SectionID=81  Contact [email protected] for more information about the course and online delivery mechanisms. Contact [email protected] for classroom versions of the class or to have a tailored, hands-on class.

The Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue is a nonprofit corporation 

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