On Balance, There Are Weighty Benefits to Mini-Satellite Generated Imagery

Published on August 12, 2014

The question was about the possibility that nefarious groups could join in the new space race that involves commercial mini-satellites going aloft and beaming back startlingly clear images to Earth.

Kevin Pomfret, Executive Director of the Centre for Spatial Law, thought a bit, and then decided that the question didn’t have an answer. Then he thought a bit more and talked about automobiles, as well as Henry Ford.

“With any technology, there is always a thought that it could be used for evil,” said Pomfret. “I’m sure that when Henry Ford built his assembly line that he wasn’t thinking about how hoodlums would outrun law enforcement in his cars.  With any new technology, you have to weigh the benefits and see that they outweigh the detractions.”

The benefit does outweigh the risk in the minds of companies that are leading a geospatial revolution in which opportunities are increasing while the size and expense of satellites decrease.

The nanosatellites, which weigh between 2.2 and 20 pounds, are built from off-the-shelf components designed for cell phones and laptop computers and assembled to fit into a shoe box-sized or smaller container.

The first satellite built by Planet Labs founders (three NASA engineers) was put together in a garage in Cupertino, Calif., in 2012. Twenty-eight of them were launched in a covey less than two years later.

From low-Earth orbit, the Planet Labs and other nanosatellites are capable of sending full-motion video and high-definition images that bring amazing quality to the platforms that display geospatial data. Images like this are why Google bought SkyBox Imaging in June for $500 million, a figure many believe is a bargain.

Google Earth, the standard in geospatial display, has bought the images it uses from various commercial concerns for many years. Now the company can generate its own products, and – more important – will be able to get images from anywhere on Earth twice a day when SkyBox launches its sixth satellite in 2016.

The company has two up now, one of them sent aloft on July 8, less than a month after the Google deal was announced.

SkyBox plans a constellation of 24 satellites by 2018, and that group will offer Earth images three times a day.

Planet Labs plans 100 more, enabling better crowd sourcing for its imaging.

Other competitors have their own ideas about selling images or data collected from analyzed images, and still others are luring funding to a burgeoning field. In all, as many as 1,000 nanosatellites are expected to begin low-Earth orbit in the next decade.

The Earth imaging industry is a $2 billion concern right now, with 14 percent growth expected by 2019. Important, too, are opportunities in business, science, weather and humanitarian relief that these new products promise – particularly with restrictions eased on image quality by the U.S. government.

Those are all weighty benefits that answer any question about a field in which innovation and opportunity abound, and which has a learning curve that is accelerating with each new opportunity.




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