Why Google bought Skybox, a satellite imaging startup

Google wants in on cheap, sophisticated satellites to boost Google Maps, and more.

Google announced on Tuesday that it is buying satellite imaging startup Skybox, and its cheap satellite with near real-time images, for $500 million in cash.

Goodbye Google Maps lag

The most obvious benefit to Google is that when you look at Google Maps in satellite view, the image will look very close to how it does in real life, in real time. "Skybox's satellites will help keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery," Google said in a press release.

But couldn't other satellite companies do the same? What makes Skybox special?

It can build quality satellites for a relatively cheap price. Skybox launched its first satellite last November, which it builT for less than $50 million (satellite costs can push into the billions of dollars). Skybox didn't waste time showing off the satellite's capabilities. In December, the company released the world's first HD video of Earth from space. In a statement following the release of the HD video, Skybox CEO Tom Ingersoll said:

The most revolutionary fact is that SkySat-1 was built and launched for more than an order of magnitude less cost than traditional sub-meter imaging satellites. This extremely high performance satellite is made possible by proprietary technologies developed by Skybox, including the integrated satellite and imaging systems designs, which enable Skybox to launch a constellation of satellites that can provide imagery timeliness, quality and dependability that was never before possible.

Is a better Google Maps the only reason Google bought Skybox?

No. Skybox has some other nascent areas of its business that could help Google. More specifically, Skybox is in the data mining business, using itS images to gather information for clients. One example, as the Wall Street Journal points out, is using images of Foxconn factories in China to better predict when the new iPhone is coming out.

Other applications could be helping with Project Loon, Google's mission to connect everyone to the Internet . "Over time, we also hope that Skybox's team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief -- areas Google has long been interested in," Google said.

Photo: Flickr/NASA

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