How tiny, cheap satellites are transforming business intelligence

Inexpensive orbital imagery is finding uses across farming, forestry, finance and more

 
Planet Labs satellites viewed in orbit.

Planet Labs has 71 micro-satellites like these ones orbiting Earth. (Planet Labs/NASA)

As an MBA student at the University of Oxford, Greg FitzGerald was a budding entrepreneur with an environmental bent. One problem that concerned him was valuable resources being tossed away instead of recycled. The issue led FitzGerald and three of his peers to form Terra Recovery, a landfill profiling and recovery company. What makes it unique is the use of small, inexpensive satellites that collect data on landfill sites to determine which ones are likely to be the most profitable to recover material from. “We can tell you precisely what the contents of a landfill are, what the expected value is and the cost of getting in there so an investor can make an educated choice,” FitzGerald says.

Satellite photo of a coastline in Kyrgystan.

Planet Labs’ constellation of 71 microsatellites beam back high-res photos for analytics purposes, such as this shot of Kyrgystan. (Planet Labs)

Terra Recovery’s business model wouldn’t be possible without micro-satellites, which a growing number of tech startups and entrepreneurs—including Tesla founder Elon Musk—are eager to provide. Access to inexpensive satellite data is creating new businesses and changing the way established industries operate, including agriculture, energy, forestry and finance. Until now, satellites have been massive devices that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but some companies are able to send much more compact versions into space, for between US$300,000 and $4 million. Around 750 of these nano- and micro-satellites, which weigh no more than 50 kilograms, are expected to launch between now and 2020, according to SpaceWorks Enterprises Inc., an aerospace engineering consulting firm in Atlanta. “Those satellites will have instantaneous coverage of a lot more area than the sort of single live satellite imagery [that’s common today],” says James Lloyd, an associate professor of astronomy and mechanical and space engineering at Cornell University.

Planet Labs, based in San Francisco, sent 71 of its shoebox-sized satellites into space for the first time this year, to provide near-constant, high-resolution pictures of what’s happening on Earth. The company is selling its imagery data to agricultural businesses to help predict the best times to plant and harvest crops. It was able to show, for example, that a dam in Brazil had lost much of its water over the last two years, and that the nearby coffee crop had declined.

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Indeed, crop producers could be one of the earliest beneficiaries of inexpensive satellite data. Argentina-based Satellogic, which is planning to launch 15 satellites into orbit next year, has said its fleet will be able to monitor every acre of arable land so farmers can know more about the nitrogen uptake of plants, water conditions and the spread of diseases, which will help increase crop yields and better determine what type of fertilizer is needed. Satellogic is also looking to provide its high-res images to clients in the oil and gas industry, who are interested in using satellite technology to significantly reduce the costs of monitoring pipelines for fractures.

It’s not just resource industries that can profit, but Wall Street, too. In 2011, Chicago-based consultancy Remote Sensing Metrics used satellite imagery to forecast customer traffic at Walmart locations in the U.S. The company examined the number of cars parked at Walmart stores and local competitors at exactly the same time of day to estimate same-store sales, calculate the increase in traffic from promotions and forecast traffic to new stores. The hope is that finance firms can use such data to make faster and more accurate investment decisions.

Micro-satellites are also helping to cover areas of the Earth that typically go unwatched, such as oceans. The majority of global trade occurs in areas that are ignored by traditional remote sensing. Spire, a San Francisco–based company, is using its satellite fleet to track cargo ships across these areas so that businesses can solve problems immediately, whether they be related to the weather, piracy or a collision. The company’s goal is to use its technology to provide data on every ship in the ocean at near real-time speeds.

“There is demand [for these small satellites’ images], and to some extent, it will depend on the supply,” says Lloyd. “As different kinds of images become available, people will develop different things they want to do with them.” As the technology evolves, the next big opportunity could be in broadband connectivity. Hundreds of micro-satellites orbiting Earth could provide broadband to remote villages and schools in the developing world, oil platforms, airplanes and boats, which typically pay a high price to connect. Startups may be able to compete with incum­bent telecommunications companies. In November, even bil­lionaire Elon Musk tweeted that one of his ventures, SpaceX, is in the early stages of “developing advanced micro-satellites,” ensuring the space race will continue for some time.

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