Legal Aspects of Detecting Parking Spaces in a Parcel using Satellite Images

With the advent of digital image processing techniques, the world has reaped many benefits such as computerized photography, biological image processing, fingerprints and iris recognition. Machines have acquired a virtual intellectual ability to recognize and distinguish images based on several characteristics that may be impossible for the human eye to perceive. This technological advance was exploited for a particular use case of detecting the number of empty and occupied parking spaces from satellite images of parking lots.

Thanks to algorithmic image processing techniques, it is possible to use satellite images for commercial purposes: to define free or occupied parking spaces. This convolutional neural network model takes as input these preprocessed images and identifies empty and occupied parking spaces with an accuracy of ninety-eight per cent. The potential advantages of using this type of technology is transposable to open parking spaces of different configurations. Placing sensors in a large number of parking spaces in an open space can be a cumbersome and overwhelming task. This proposed new model includes certain advantages, but falls within a regulatory framework defined by the use of satellite remote sensing data.

International legal framework for the collection and distribution of remote sensing data

The first data policy of an observer state was defined in 1972 when the U.S. sent the Landsat satellite. Its mission was to study the environment, as well as the management of the territory and natural resources by providing data with a resolution of eighty meters. It was not until 1984 that the United States of America decided to market the data collected.

France, in 1986 launches the SPOT satellite, the data of which will be marketed by Spotimage, a private company. The SPOT (Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre) had a resolution of twenty meters. It therefore appeared necessary to define national rules for access to data and information. The Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act of July 17, 1984 is the first law adopted by the Americans to redefine national rules for access to satellite data and information.

It was in 1992 that Bill Clinton authorized private companies to use very high resolution satellite imagery systems that were previously reserved for military purposes. Space Imaging thus became the first private operator to operate a satellite with a resolution of one meter, Ikonos. The precision of such imaging systems multiplied the possible uses of this type of data and can represent a major commercial interest.

As a result, an international legislative movement to strike a balance between open market and security took place. The international legal framework for remote sensing was built around a compromise: free observation by States and the protection of their interests.

Resolution 41/65 of April 1986 was adopted by consensus by the Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) then by the U.N. General Assembly in December of the same year. The scope of the text is limited to “observation of the Earth’s surface from space for the purposes of improving the management of natural resources, land use planning or protection of the Earth environment”. Not all civilian applications are covered by the text, especially commercial orders. The resolution covers both primary (I. b.), processed (I. c.) and analyzed information (I. d.) data.

The freedom applies whatever the observation technology used (optical or radar) and whatever the resolution of the data. Very high resolution data and imagery that could be used for detecting the availability of a parking space are therefore covered if they fall within the purposes of the definition of remote sensing according to resolution 41/65.

The establishment of an administrative regime

The American administration defined the stakes of its national policy in the Presidential Decision Directive (PDD23) on March 10, 1994. The text aims to promote the development of a data market open to private operators, without endangering U.S. national security and international obligations. This policy is implemented by the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992.

For its part, France, which wanted to put an end to the informal and non-transparent system for controlling the distribution of data from SPOT satellites, introduced Chapter VII in Law No. 2008-518 of June 3, 2008 on space operations. These two states have fully appreciated the need to control the satellite observation market through a prior administrative procedure and the possibility of imposing restrictions.

In the U.S., for example, a license is required to operate a private remote sensing system. This license is issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Several obligations flow from the license, including the preservation of U.S. national security and respect for U.S. international commitments.

In France, the 2008 law sets up a more flexible system. Any primary operator of space-based data operating in France must send a declaration to the Secretary General of Defense and National Security (SGDSN) at least two months before the start of operation. The operator must also have obtained an authorization to process classified information that could be transmitted.

National laws establish a mechanism allowing States to intervene in the activity of companies to prevent the distribution or collection of data from threatening national security or the international obligations of governments.

The United States of America has opted for a so-called Shutter Control Policy allowing the Commerce Department to impose restrictions on the collection or distribution of data. The operator may be required to provide the U.S. Government exclusively on a commercial basis with the data collected that is subject to restriction.

In France, the SGDSN can prescribe measures such as the immediate, total or partial suspension of programming or reception for a renewable temporary period; the obligation to postpone the programming, reception or production of images for a renewable temporary period; the permanent prohibition of programming or reception, the limitation of the technical quality of the data and the geographical limitation of shooting areas.

Thus, the regulations in force on satellite remote sensing are a strategic issue aimed at ensuring that the activity of the primary operators of data of spatial origin does not undermine the fundamental interests of the nation, in particular national defense, foreign policy and international commitments of the country. If these attacks are not characterized, the regulations on satellite remote sensing do not preclude allowing real-time information on the occupation of a car park for commercial purposes.