Big Data and satellite imagery just went to “11” on the volume dial. EarthNow, a Bellevue, Washington startup, announced it intends to put up a large constellation of imaging satellites delivering real-time, continuous video of almost anywhere on Earth. The company announced it has closed a first round of funding, with investors including Airbus, SoftBank, Bill Gates, and O3b/OneWeb founder Greg Wyler.
“EarthNow is ambitious and unprecedented, but our objective is simple; we want to connect you visually with Earth in real time,” said EarthNow’s founder and CEO, Russell Hannigan. ” We believe the ability to see and understand the Earth live and unfiltered will help all of us better appreciate and ultimately care for our one and only home.”
The EarthNow constellation dramatically moves the bar for Earth observation satellite systems. Planet Labs, operating a state-of-the art imaging constellation, is capable of collecting around 2 minutes of high-resolution video of a target area when instructed in advance, then taking the stored video and downloading it to a ground station anywhere from minutes to hours later. Twelve SkySats provide the ability for Planet to view locations at sub-meter resolution “sub-weekly,” according to the company’s website.
“With existing systems, users can see only what has happened in the past. With EarthNow’s constellation of satellites, you will see events unfold as they happen in real time, Hannigan said.
EarthNow’s full constellation is expected to number around 500 satellites, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The company will leverage OneWeb’s work to create and build satellites for its forthcoming low earth orbit (LEO) broadband service. OneWeb’s first generation constellation is expected to have around 700 satellites, with the first group to be launched sometime in 2019. European aerospace firm Airbus has built a factory outside of Kennedy Space Center to build three satellites a day, with an expect run of nearly 3,000 OneWeb satellites.
Based on the OneWeb satellite “bus” hardware, each EarthNow satellite is expected to weigh close to 500 pounds. Each satellite will incorporate an “unprecedented” amount of onboard processing power, including “more CPU cores than all other commercial satellites combined,” according to the company. The onboard computing power along with terrestrial processing and machine learning will give EarthNow satellites the ability to interpret what they see in real time.
Initial customers for the service will be enterprise and government, but EarthNow eventually expects to serve millions of consumers via app, allowing individuals to see and interact with the Earth in real time.
If there’s an open question on the system, it is in the communications architecture to move video feeds from 500 satellites in real time. Each satellite might incorporate a derivative or upgrade of OneWeb’s LEO broadband architecture and/or might be able to leverage the OneWeb network to move video around.
The company is currently refining the overall system design and project plan, so there’s no timeline on satellite builds and deployment. Estimated cost for the full EarthNow constellation is around $1 billion, but that’s a very loose figure given the preliminary level of work at this point.