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September 2, 2021

Satellite technology and the remote sensing community as a whole have evolved significantly since the passage of the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act.

Landsat 8 image of Phoenix, Arizona
Landsat 8 image of Phoenix, Arizona, acquired on January 13, 2020 (Path 37 Row 36).  This false color image uses the short-wave infrared, near infrared, and red bands (bands 6, 5, 4) to display the data.For more information about Landsat, please visit download the data, visit

Several other countries have joined the U.S. and Europe to launch and maintain Earth observation satellites, building on the legacy of the USGS Landsat program and aided by a 2008 policy shift that allowed no-cost worldwide access to the long-serving orbiter’s data archive. Commercial players have expanded their footprint, launching small satellites by the hundreds. The diversified field of remote sensing now leans heavily on broadband Internet access, cloud computing, high-performance computing, and machine learning to maximize the impact of Earth observations.

In short, more people than ever have access to and use satellite data. What hasn’t changed is the USGS commitment to ensuring global leadership, engaging with users, making useful and reliable data readily available, and ensuring continuity in land remote sensing observations.

Recognizing the field’s growth and shifts in focus, the USGS National Land Imaging (NLI) Program recently asked the Landsat Advisory Group (LAG), a subcommittee of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC), to review the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act and provide guidance for discussions on its future.

The final LAG report on the almost 30-year-old statute was reviewed and approved during the April 2021 LAG meeting, and is available online at this link.

“Revisiting the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992” delves into changes to the field and the Landsat program’s successes over the past 30 years, and outlines “a modernized interpretation of the Act in a manner that remains consistent with the spirit of the existing language.” It notes that the Act’s goal to encourage the use of Landsat data for research and applications has largely been realized.

“One of the things that was surprising to me going into this, given how much has changed in the 30 years since this was written, was how much of (the Act) was still relevant, and how much the key objectives that were laid out in it still apply,” said Dr. Mariel Borowitz of Georgia Tech, a LAG member and one of the report’s co-authors. “The changes were really about ‘how do you achieve those objectives in the current context?’”

LAG Leans on Diverse Experience, Expertise

The LAG is a standing subcommittee of the NGAC, whose members are appointed to 3-year terms by the Secretary of Interior. The NGAC includes members from Federal and State agencies, academia and commercial groups, while the LAG includes both NGAC members and members with specific areas of remote sensing expertise.

“The NGAC is a phenomenal group, and the Department of Interior works hard to foster diversity in every possible way,” said co-author Keith Masback of Plum Run LLC, a former NGAC and current LAG member. “That’s helpful not just in that it brings together people with these complementary backgrounds and perspectives, but also because those members can go back to their respective communities and share the good word from the NGAC, so to speak.”

Color Landsat image of surface water
Images taken from Landsat 8, including this one taken in January of 2020, is just one of the many federal sources of geographic data in the United States.

Masback, for his part, brought decades of remote sensing experience from a national security perspective to the table when work on the report began two years ago. Borowitz, meanwhile, brought an international policy perspective. Before joining the LAG, Borowitz authored the book “Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data,” which delved into the global impact of the 2008 Landsat Free and Open Data Policy.  

“Landsat is one of the most important examples of transitions in data policies and the effect they can have, especially the move to an open data policy,” Borowitz said.

Multiple studies have calculated the economic benefits of the 2008 open data policy to be in the billions of U.S. dollars. The policy has also expanded the remote sensing community, with tens of thousands of active Landsat users now spread across academic institutions, private businesses, Federal agencies, State and local governments, and nonprofit organizations.

Between 1986 and 1992, for example, an average of 400 peer-reviewed publications cited Landsat in their titles, abstracts or keywords each year. By 2017—after the implementation of the open data policy—that figure had jumped to 1,200.

About 5,000 Landsat images were distributed each year before 2008. Today, the Landsat program distributes millions of images each year.

The open data policy led the way for other programs, notably the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 missions, to provide open access to Earth observation data. The LAG reviewed and re-affirmed the open data policy in mid-2019. The open data policy also served to support the rapidly-expanding commercial remote sensing industry—another of the LRS Act’s stated objectives.

“Users may experiment with relatively low-resolution Landsat data before turning to commercial providers for more precise imagery,” the report said. “Commercial entities use Landsat data to calibrate their own instruments and sometimes offer products that fuse their commercial data with free government data.”

Report to Guide Discussions on Future Policy

The report’s conclusions on the Act are not prescriptive, and they weren’t meant to be. Instead, the authors framed their discussion points in the form of questions.

“The idea here was to create a document around which these discussions can circle,” Masback said. “We’ve taken a hard look at this, tried to boil it down to something consumable, and those questions can be relevant to a variety of fora.”

How should the Landsat program approach and accomplish data continuity, for example? In the interest of meeting the Act’s broad goals, should the Landsat program expand its objectives beyond medium resolution land imaging to include the collection of water and atmospheric data? What role does Landsat play in global leadership as other Nations expand their satellite programs, and how can or should the Landsat program leverage partnerships with programs like Copernicus? And finally, what principles for a new national land remote sensing policy would best serve to inform and maintain global leadership for the U.S.?

“Certainly, these are the types of questions the Landsat Advisory Group would be looking at, and that’s one potential way forward,” Borowitz said. “But I think you’ll see these debated in other venues, as well. In the broader policy community, these questions are really relevant.”

Follow this link to read the full report, as well as to access other documents and reports from April’s LAG meeting.

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