OTA Completes Series of Reports on Remote Sensing

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Publication date: 
2 November 1994

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) has just completed a
several-year analysis of the US's civilian remote sensing and Earth
observing systems.  This examination, requested by the House and
Senate committees with responsibility for these programs, has
produced three reports.  The final report, "Civilian Satellite
Remote Sensing: A Strategic Approach," (OTA-ISS-607) was released
on October 28.  (The other reports in the series are "The Future of
Remote Sensing from Space: Civilian Satellite Systems and
Applications," OTA-ISC-558, July 1993; and "Remotely Sensed Data:
Technology, Management, and Markets," OTA-ISS-604, September 1994.)

Noting that "over the next two decades, Earth observations from
space promise to become increasingly important for predicting the
weather, studying global change, and managing global resources,"
the latest report lays out the case for developing a long-term
strategic plan for the U.S. programs.  At least five major remote
sensing systems for unclassified Earth data are currently operated
or being contemplated by the U.S. government, and the existing
systems are operated by three different agencies: NASA, NOAA (the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and DOD.  OTA
finds that the current programs "are characterized by having
overlapping requirements and redundant instruments and spacecraft."

"To improve the nation's return on its investment in remote sensing
technologies [now about $1.5 billion per year], to meet the needs
of data users more effectively, and to take full advantage of other
nations' capabilities," the report says, "Congress may wish to
initiate a long-term, comprehensive plan for Earth observation."

OTA recommends that any strategic plan do the following:
incorporate the needs of both government and nongovernment data
users; improve efficiency and reduce costs; involve private remote
sensing system operators; incorporate international programs; and
guide the development of new technologies.  The report also urges
better coordination and collaboration between agencies.  It
specifically commends the Clinton Administration's plan to
consolidate the polar-orbiting systems operated by NOAA and DOD as
"one important component of a broader strategic plan." 

"However," the report cautions, "developing such a plan carries
certain risks....  [It] could result in a cumbersome management
structure...[and] undermine existing operational programs."  OTA
warns that merging individual programs into a larger, comprehensive
program might inhibit adaptations and increase the program's
susceptibility to budget cuts, since there is no certainty that
"the program will be considered as a whole when the federal budget
reaches Congress.  Each committee has its own priorities and may
either enhance or cut the budget of a given program, independent of
the funding balance agreed upon by the Clinton Administration.  In
other words, the very structure of the U.S. government may make the
development and execution of a strategic plan difficult."

The reports can be ordered from the Government Printing Office at