US lifts restrictions on more detailed satellite images

Worldview-3 satellite The Worldview-3 satellite is set to launch in August

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Sites like Google and Bing Maps will be able to use higher-quality satellite images, thanks to US government restrictions being lifted.

Companies had not been allowed to make use of images where features smaller than 50cm were visible.

But one imaging firm, Digital Globe, said it would be able to sell images that showed features as small as 31cm.

One lawyer told the BBC he expected "repercussions" from people worried about their privacy.

Marc Dautlich, from Pinsent Masons, said there may be "national security considerations" to address as well.

Currently, some sensitive locations around the world are obscured or blurred on mapping websites.

The decision was made after Digital Globe applied to the US Department of Commerce asking for restrictions to be lifted.

'Manholes and mailboxes'

Digital Globe said new satellites would be launched to take advantage of the ruling.

The company's Worldview-3 satellite is due to launch in August and will be able to show "key features such as manholes and mailboxes".

"In the past, collecting sub-50cm resolution required chartering and flying aircraft," the company said.

"This is expensive, time-consuming, and can be limited by denied airspace or dangerous conditions."

Jeffrey Tarr, Digital Globe's chief executive, said: "We are very pleased and appreciative that the US Department of Commerce has made this forward-leaning change to our nation's policy that will fuel innovation, create new high-tech jobs, and advance the nation's commanding lead in this strategically important industry.

"Our customers will immediately realise the benefits of this updated regulation, as for the first time, we will be able to make our very best imagery available to the commercial market."

As well as for general public use, the higher-quality images can have other uses, the company said, such as aiding agriculture efforts and disaster relief.

Google recently announced it was planning to purchase an alternative satellite imaging company, Skybox, for $500m (£295m). The company currently has one satellite in orbit - SkySat-1 - but hopes to eventually launch a total of 24.

The satellites may also be used to provide internet access to currently unconnected or restricted parts of the world.

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