Planet Labs beefs up satellite imagery constellation, on-ramp tools

A year after acquiring Google’s satellite division, Planet Labs now has 13 high-resolution satellites in operation to complement its nearly 200 Dove global coverage satellite fleet.

Planet Labs acquired Terra Bella from Google in April 2017, with Google taking both an ownership stake in Planet and becoming a key customer.  At the time of acquisition in April, Terra Bella had six SkySat satellites capable of providing 80 centimeter still imagery as well as video.  Another six SkySat satellites were put into orbit in October 2017 and now are in production mode.

The combination of dorm fridge-sized SkySats and smaller breadbox-size Doves makes Planet the largest single operator of satellites in the world.  With 13 high-resolution satellites, customers can task SkySats  faster and more frequently, getting images in as few as 8 hours once taken and taking pictures as often as twice daily.  Wider-view Dove imagery at 3 meter resolution, with the entire surface of Earth captured daily, can be used to identify changes and provide information on where to point SkySats for capturing greater detail of what’s happening on the ground.

Planet boasts it collects six (6) terabytes of imagery a day as it images the entire globe with its 200 plus satellites.  But all those pictures aren’t worth anything if you don’t know where to look or how to process them.  The company has added a “New Collections” selection of over 500 key geographic locations relevant to energy, defense and intelligence, maritime, and mapping sectors.  New Collections is essentially a starter kits/sandbox for companies, with updates provided twice monthly.  Customers can subscribe to imagery feeds to monitor activity or build and test change detection algorithms at a lower price point than a customized subscription.

One of the dirty secrets of image mining not highlighted in popular adventure movies is the need to process raw data from a satellite into a usable form.  Imagery has to be adjusted for lighting and atmospheric conditions, the angle where imagery is taken, effects of cloud shadow and haze, normalizing imagery coming from different satellite sensors, and being able to stitch together a view of a specific location from multiple images

Planet is working on a lot of different automated processing techniques to delivery “analysis ready data” or ARD, lifting the processing burden from users.  Developers can access a series of APIs to search, clip, process, and order Planet imagery.  The company has been big on open source code and developer friendly as it continues to grow its imagery catalog.

It makes sense for Planet to continue to grow its developer toolkit as other satellite imagery firms step up their game. DigitalGlobe and BlackSky, among others, are promoting API access, machine intelligence, and other tools to make imagery more accessible and faster to use.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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