How cheap, tiny satellites could change how we see the world

Silicon Valley startups are bringing more real-time satellite images (and video) down to Earth.

If you've ever zoomed in on a familiar neighborhood using Google Maps and other mapping services with satellite images, you know that the satellites images are out-of-date. That new building down the street might just look like a big a hole in the ground on the satellite images.

But a couple of Silicon Valley startups, Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs, want to narrow the gap in time lag of commercial satellite imagery so that services like Google Maps could offer near real-time satellite images. 

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the idea behind the companies is to provide a quick survey of global images that they can sell to other companies to help them spot valuable trends. These are companies that need speedy images rather than the high-quality images provided by bigger companies like DigitalGlobe or Airbus Defense & Space. What could these be used for?

The next step is something more like a Google for Earth: a search engine where people can find satellite photos taken in real or near-real time that answer questions like “How many ships are in the Port of Houston today?” or “How much corn is currently growing in Iowa?” That would be of real value to oil exploration companies, day traders, and others with the tools to analyze the data. To pull this off, a company would need to build a network of satellites dense enough to capture a picture of the whole earth, sort of like a scanner encircling the planet.

As Robbie Schingler, co-founder of Planet Labs, told NASA: "Our company goal is to image everywhere very frequently, for everyone. If you image everywhere, then that actually means that you can image anywhere. That’s going to be quite transformative for a number of countries, for a number of companies, and so forth. Our monitoring capability is always on. We are always taking a picture."

Earlier this month, Planet Labs launched a fleet of 28 of its small satellites into space, making it the "largest single constellation of Earth-imaging satellites." 

Skybox launched its first satellite in November, which has since provided the first ever HD video from space. And, this week, it announce a deal with Orbital Sciences Corp. to launch six more Earth observation satellites in 2015.

The key for these startups is that it's all being done on the cheap. Skybox for example is using sub-$50 million satellites by building them with "off-the-shelf electronics." Compared to more complex satellites, like this one, that's nothing.

But what does it all mean? How will a bunch of cheap, relatively lower-quality satellites change the world? The Atlantic's Robinson Meyer sums it up nicely:

Very soon, it’s likely that it will be substantially easier to buy recent, high-resolution imagery of the Earth’s surface. Large companies will have access to the same global quasi-omniscience as the world’s powerful governments. If successful, these startups will consolidate power.

Photo: Flickr/NASA

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