Aerial and satellite imaging are complimentary in nature

Aerial and satellite imaging are complimentary in nature

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DigitalGlobe was earlier a traditional satellite company. In other words, we had an asset up in space and people would approach us with requests to take pictures of their area of interest using our satellite.
Marc Tremblay
Vice President, Commercial Business Unit,
DigitalGlobe, USA

Q: How has DigitalGlobe evolved as a company in the past few years? Where is it headed to in the near future?

DigitalGlobe was earlier a traditional satellite company. In other words, we had an asset up in space and people would approach us with requests to take pictures of their area of interest using our satellite. This was the model for many years for the satellite industry. What has changed for DigitalGlobe in the past few years is that we have tried to become a content company by focussing more on making strategic decisions regarding which areas to capture and thereafter trying to sell them multiple times. We will be expanding our capacity to systematically image different parts of the earth significantly, later this year, with the launch of WorldView I satellite. This will be a fundamental change for us. The model entails working with our partners in various countries of the world, understanding which areas of the earth they care about the most, doing our best to image them and finally selling the images to multiple customers.

Q. Every industry changes with the change in demand pattern. Has there been a change in the demand pattern for satellite products too?

Spurred by Google Earth, there has been an increase in the demand for satellite imagery in the past few years. The range of people who use the imagery has also undergone a change. Historically, it was the domain of GIS and Remote Sensing specialists. Also, only a few people in an organisation could access this information. Increasingly, what we have seen is that in the last few years is an increase in awareness for and expansion of use of imageries within an organisation. Today, there are more tools available that make it easier to view this data (Google Earth, Virtual Earth, GIS packages etc.). Hence, more people are using this information than ever before.

Q. Do you foresee a shift in the model of image delivery?

There will be a shift in the image delivery model definitely. The web is going to play an increasingly larger role in how people consume the content. DigitalGlobe has an online store. It is different than the typical delivery model where someone can order for the imagery in a JPEG format, which does not contain geo-referenced information.

So, we see a need to have products that are useful to different types of customers, that is, people whom we are selling these imageries to. In case of the DigitalGlobe online store, we have tasted major success in commercial real estate industry. Other distribution mechanisms through which you can get a lot of detailed information is through direct desktop plug-ins and software solutions.

Q. Keeping in view the scheduled launch of WorldView-I in September 2007, what according to you has fuelled the growth of satellite industry?

The fundamental difference is in the capacity to acquire imagery which is of high resolution and accurate. The launch of WorldView I, would in certain regards, mean better imagery than what we have today. The satellite is also more agile. It can capture five times the imagery that QuickBird can capture today. If you couple the launch of WorldView I with that of WorldView II, scheduled for launch in late 2008, there will be a ten times increase in our capacity. This means that it would become much more easier to execute the content strategy as the required frequency of capturing more areas will become quite feasible. It would signify a big shift in the model where one had to wait for six to eight months to get a relatively smaller imagery to proactively going out and refreshing key parts of the earth at regular intervals.

Q. Aerial imaging is emerging as an industry very strongly. Do you consider that as a competition to the satellite imagery market?

I view it as very complementary indeed. It certainly becomes competitive if you do not have access to aerial photographs. This is the reason why we acquired GlobeXplorer earlier this year.

GlobeXplorer has a subsidiary called AirPhotoUSA. This company has a very interesting model. They fly all over the U.S to acquire and maintain current, nationwide aerial imagery at one-foot pixel resolution. Plans are afoot to extend into Europe as well. All the processing would then be centralised.

We at DigitalGlobe think that aerial imagery and satellite imagery are quite complimentary because aerial imagery is useful for imaging downtown metropolitan areas, giving a wider coverage at higher resolution which is not possible in commercial satellite images due to restrictions. Satellite images, on the other hand, are great for markets all over the world where it is not possible to fly.

Q. Many nations worldwide are building their own satellite programmes. What is your reaction (being a commercial satellite company) to such developments?

It is good for the industry that there are going to be more satellites. There is a growing demand for satellite data. According to me, the key to success in the future will be our ability to execute ourselves as a content company. Having the content that people need today in our image library is not everything. It is important that we make it possible for them to consume it the way they wish to. So, I think our data archive , available over the web, will give us an advantage. Other new emerging companies will probably not be systematic in giving out their content.

A lot of them are probably going to be project-based. Hence, they are going to satisfy individual project demands probably within the market. But, our advantage is that we can go to people with the imagery they need, customised to their requirements.

Q. What are your views on the Asian market with regards to its potential?

Historically, Asia has been the fastest growing region for us for a number of years. It is the market that we are most excited about. The Asian market is growing very rapidly. There is an unbelievable amount of infrastructure being built as cities are growing and expanding rapidly. Whenever there is a lot of change and investment in infrastructure, it suits our industry very well. I think there is a lot of opportunity there and as we increase our capacity, we will be in a much better position to serve this growing market.

Q. How do you view the relationship between DigitalGlobe and Google Earth? It is a fantastic

relationship. We view one another as strategic partners. The relationship has worked out very well owing to the synergy. Google Earth has contributed immensely in increasing awareness about our industry and in contributing to DigitalGlobe’s success. It makes me happy to say that we have played a small part in making what Google Earth is today.

Q. What is DigitalGlobe’s strategy for making available satellite imageries for commercial consumer level applications?

I think the consumer is more demanding than the professional user. A consumer expects the imagery to be current. So, the bar is quite high. Therefore, the key to being successful is to have consistent coverage which is of a good quality and is current. If these three elements are achieved, then the imagery can be deployed in a number of consumer- based applications. That really has driven the success of Google Earth in many regards because they were the first to invest in seamless coverage of the earth.

This, I feel, was the turning point for the industry. Until then, nobody had the resources to really go out and do that kind of work. We like to think our- selves as the first company that is emerging as a content company by building the largest constellation of commercial satellites and complimenting that with an aerial programme.

Q. As one of the leaders of the satellite industry, where do you see this industry heading to in the next few years?

There will be two major developments. One is the growth in the number of people who will be using this information. I think, presently we have only scratched the surface. So, instead of being a very specialised industry for a select few scientists or defence analysts, you are going to witness a continued expansion in the use of satellite imagery.

Also, given that we are about to experience an explosion in capacity, we will see new applications for the imagery emerge, which were not feasible in the past. If an area is visited frequently, it opens up a lot of new application possibilities which we had not considered before.

Q. There is a lot of competition in the satellite imaging market especially in sub-metre resolution data. How is DigitalGlobe trying to consolidate its position?

Competition will always be there. DigitalGlobe will much rather be in an industry where there is competition because it means that there are opportunities available. If there are no competitors, it means that most people do not consider it a valuable industry to be in. So, competition is beneficial. We are very confident that we are in a good position to continue to maintain our leadership in the market. Two satellites (WorldView I and WorldView II) are being developed by DigitalGlobe.

Worldview II is going to be a purely commercial satellite. From a constellation standpoint, we are in a really good position.

As I mentioned earlier, marrying the aerial imaging with the satellite is really going to benefit us in the long term. There is a big difference in having satellites and partnering with an aerial imaging company than actually controlling where the sensors go. Hence, we can be more efficient in avoiding overlaps.

If we know that we are going to capture a certain market aerially, we are not going to waste precious satellite capacity on that market. We will redirect it to aerial which will prove to be more useful. Supersoft ad