Satellite imagery (and opportunities) everywhere

Turn on the TV or browse your favorite social media app — it’s hard to escape pictures taken from satellites overhead.  Breaking world news stories now feature satellite photos to provide context and/or information about areas difficult or unavailable for access.  It might be something as serious as North Korea destroying nuclear test facilities, Iran’s secret rocket program, Hawaii lava flows or mundane as the crowd turnout for Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding in London.  Behind the scenes, a  growing commercial marketplace for imagery is seeking new customers plus developers to write applications.

Planet, with its constellation of Doves and SkySats, is one of the primary drivers for proliferation of imagery in media.  The New Space company takes pictures of the entire Earth’s surface every single day at a resolution of 3 to 5 meters, collecting 6 terabytes (TB) of data per day with over 140 Dove satellites.  For more finer detail and HD video, a fleet of 13 SkySats provides 80 centimeter resolution to Planet customers.

DigitalGlobe started as a traditional space company, providing high resolution imagery for governments, with Google and other commercial customers expanding its base over time.  The company has fewer satellites than Planet’s constellations, but has sharper eyes in the sky due in large part to its government anchor customers.  WorldView-3 and -4 provide up to 30 centimeter resolution imagery — the best you get commercially — while members of the GeoEye and WorldView family collect multispectral data as well, providing additional layers of information beyond what the human eye sees.

But it’s a much wider sky than Planet and DigitalGlobe, with many new entrants working to take advantage of lower launch costs and smaller, more affordable satellites.  BlackSky, a division of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, raised $150 million in its latest (Series C) round to build an imaging constellation of 60 satellites.  The company has built its first four production satellites and plans to launch the first one this year.  EarthNow is talking about building a 500 hundred satellite constellation capable of proving high-resolution, real-time video of the entire surface of the planet. UK-based Earth-i has a pathfinder satellite in orbit capable of capturing up to 50 frames per second with the first five satellites building built for launch in late 2019 or early 2020.

Also in the pipeline is China’s Zhuhai Orbita constellation, a mix of video and hyperspectral spectral satellites.   New radar constellations, such as ICEYE’s nine satellites scheduled to be launched through the end of 2019, will provide imagery through cloud cover and at night, adding even more data for companies to evaluate and process.

Processing satellite data from multiple sources to provide clear, actionable insights is a booming business.   Raw imagery needs to be processed and adjusted for such things as atmosphere effects, lighting conditions, and observation angle in order to accurately compare what’s happening on the Earth’s surface over time.

Descartes Labs, Orbital Insight, and Ursa Space are a few examples of independent geospatial data analysis firms taking in data from different satellite source and fusing them together to generate useful information. For instance, Orbital Insight provides monitoring of over 260,000 locations across 165 retailers in the United States, while Ursa has become the go-to source for monitoring worldwide oil storage and production.  Descartes Labs and others are applying machine learning to quickly and rapidly process imagery without human intervention.

There’s a lot of room for developers to get involved in the world of satellite imagery.  Many imagery and analysis firms provide APIs, SDKs, sandboxes and other tools to access and process data, with free trial access available for investigation and app experimentation.  While commercial access today may be pricy for some uses, costs are going to continue to go down as more startups start launching satellites and collecting imagery.

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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