How Low-Cost Space Cameras May Open Up Satellite Data

By Wesley Fenlon

Small, cheap satellites could provide a wealth of space imagery to businesses within the next few years.

With Google Earth, we can explore an incredible collage of terrestrial images, panning and zooming across the entire planet. With Google Maps and Bing Maps, we can use similar satellite imagery to feel out a vacation spot or new destination. It's amazing, then, that with all that data available to us from from satellites orbiting Earth, there are only 12 satellites US-owned satellites up in space that can beam down high-definition images. Twelve! And of those 12, only 9 actually sell space imagery to the commercial market.

Photo credit: Skybox Imaging/Wired

Why are there not hundreds of those satellites? Thousands? The obvious answer, the old answer, would be this: Launching satellites into space is expensive. The new answer, the answer of Skybox Imaging--a startup that intends to launch a fleet of satellites into Earth's orbit and revolutionize the industry of satellite imaging--is this: Launching satellites into space can be pretty cheap, if you know what you're doing.

Wired recently published a fantastic profile of Skybox Imaging and its plan to launch a constellation of inexpensive CubeSat satellites into space beginning this year. Unlike NASA, but very much like a technology startup, Skybox isn't using expensive cutting-edge imaging sensors or technologies in its satellites. These satellites will be cheap, by satellite standards, about a meter across each side. Skybox used existing satellite TV broadcast protocol as a basis for its Earth-to-satellite communication.

Software is where the magic will happen. Using an array of cheap sensors in its satellites, Skybox Imaging will stitch together image data to create high-resolution mosaics, with enough detail to spot cars in parking lots. How Skybox Imaging then uses that data is where the revolution may happen. Currently, the US government controls a major chunk of the space imaging data currently coming from those nine satellites. Skybox Imaging wants there to be more data, available to more businesses, and commercial space imaging is expected to grow from a $2.3 billion industry to a $4 billion industry by 2018.

And, of course, Skybox has plans for the data, itself.

Skybox will make money by analyzing the massive trove of unsold and unused images for valuable data.

"Over the long term, the company’s real payoff won’t be in the images Skybox sells," Wired writes. "Instead, it will derive from the massive trove of unsold images that flow through its system every day—images that, when analyzed by computer vision or by low-paid humans, can be transmogrified into extremely useful, desirable, and valuable data. ... (One company insider confided to me that they have already brainstormed entirely practical ways to estimate major economic indicators for any country, entirely based on satellite data.)"

The government's current control of the satellite imaging market may pose a problem for Skybox--the United States may step in and demand a share of its data--but for now, Skybox is moving towards getting its first satellite into space in September. And they have a lot of backup--Skybox's leadership and advisory board both contain former government employees and defense contractors, who can, hopefully, keep the startup safe from government interference.

The rest of Wired's profile is a must-read, as it delves into the crew of Stanford brains behind Skybox, the history of low-cost CubeSats, and how Skybox hopes to put its forthcoming treasure trove of data to use.