The future of earth observation is in small satellites

The future of earth observation is in small satellites

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earth observation small satellites

Space is big. But, the satellites disrupting the earth observation market are getting smaller and smaller. By Ishveena Singh

When the biggest commercial satellite imagery player in the world decides to bet on something as small as the size of a shoe box, you know you are onto something. In February, DigitalGlobe announced it was joining forces with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to develop a constellation of highly-capable small satellites. This news reinforced the belief that it’s a bullish time to be in the commercial earth observation (EO) market right now.

Today, the skies are filled with eyes. Space is sprinkled with sensors. A swarm of cameras is capturing our planet’s every move. And a big boom in small satellites is transforming the EO industry.

Just like your smartphones, satellites are also getting smaller and better. Nanosatellites are, in fact, about the size of a mobile. Satellites even as small as a chip, or a postage stamp, have been launched. These are called femtosatellites and weigh about 5-10 grams. But, they can do almost everything a conventional satellite does, and that too at a fraction of the cost. And though nobody is disputing that small satellites cannot replace bigger, conventional satellites on account of the sheer pixel resolution the latter offers, everybody — from government organizations and start-ups to educational institutes — is scrambling to get a piece of the smallsat pie. In 2014 alone, 158 satellites weighing between 1 and 50 kg were launched.

The space renaissance

The big bang theory of smallsats can be attributed to fast-changing technology trends cutting down gestation periods. The industry is responding to the subsequent profit vulnerability by making smaller spacecrafts quickly, deploying them even more swiftly and getting data from them rapidly.

Data needs are what fuelled DigitalGlobe’s new partnership as well. Dr Kumar Navulur, the company’s Senior Director of Strategic Solutions, reveals, “There are certain areas on the planet where we have really high demand from our customers. In these places, we would be complementing our smallsat capacity on top of the satellites we already have. The second aspect is monitoring. Some of our customers want more frequent visits of data. With a constellation of smallsats, we would be able to visit certain places almost 40 times a day.”

Canada-based UrtheCast, which first challenged the EO industry with its innovative idea of video imagery from space, is now partnering with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) to exploit the latter’s expertise in providing innovative low cost small satellite solutions. UrtheCast, last year, acquired Deimos at an aggregate price of €76.4 million. According to Dr Rao Ramayanam, UrtheCast’s Vice President of Sales for Middle East, Africa and South Asia, “High-revisit rates and higher data volumes have become a game-changer today. The idea is that a customer should be able to access the imagery within 20-25 minutes of a satellite passing over an area.” And let’s not forget that the lower costs associated with smallsats allow companies to offer our products at a rate which is less than the market price.

Less cost, more players

As satellite technology gets smaller and cheaper over the years, the barrier to entry into the space industry has also lowered. Earth observation has become accessible to corporations and start-ups alike. Organizations are now able to expand beyond their current horizons. Space businesses are popping up in every corner of the world. Small countries with limited budgets are losing their space virginity.

earth observation small satellites

“It is a lot cheaper application to invest in when compared with starting a full space science program or developing geo capabilities and satellite communication. We are seeing countries such as South Korea or even Nigeria and Algeria, who started off with this technology, now have a diverse EO program,” avers Adam Keith, Managing Director, Euroconsult.

Moreover, as Anne Hale Miglarese, President, PlanetiQ, points out, for each kilogram that you take off a satellite, you save tens of thousands of dollars in launching it.

Fast-tracking innovation

Small satellites may have come into the spotlight only a little while ago, but they are already driving scientific and technological innovations. Josh Alban, Vice President (Sales), Planet Labs, asserts that these tiny metal boxes have forced the industry to move at a fundamentally faster pace. “If you are not taking 5 to 10 years just to build a satellite, you can innovate on the core technology much more quickly,” he says. That enables a company to effectively serve up better and more interesting datasets to not only the existing customers, but also to people who know very little about geospatial information.

Today, partnerships are being formed to manufacture, assemble and deploy nanosatellites in space itself. Space manufacturing company, Made In Space, and low-Earth orbit services provider, NanoRacks, are collaborating to dish out a new service for cubesat developers. This service is being called Stash & Deploy. It will stash a variety of standard and customer-specific components aboard a satellite deployment platform, like the International Space Station. These components will be used for rapid manufacturing of CubeSats. Made In Space President Andrew Rush reveals Stash & Deploy would allow satellites to be manufactured quickly and to the customer’s exact needs. Customers will not even have to wait for a launch vehicle. Rush believes that the entire process should take only a fraction of the time needed to build, manifest, launch and deploy satellites from
the ground.

earth observation small satellites

Philippe Campenon, Vice President, Sales, Blackbridge, calls attention to the fact that small satellites would also create a challenge for traditional players’ capacity to anticipate the market. “This would be because a big satellite will take several years to build and deploy. During that time, two, three or four generations of nanosatellites would already be orbiting the Earth. Traditional players will need to anticipate the market correctly to ensure that the decisions they take now are relevant five to six years later.”

Here comes the money

Perhaps the best validation of the smallsat market is a financial one. So, it’s no surprise that research firm, Markets and Markets has predicted a bullish future for the small satellite industry. The nano and microsatellite market is estimated to grow from $702.4 million in 2014 to $1887.1 million in 2019.

Start-ups like Spire and BlackSky Global have gathered tens of millions in venture cash from the likes of Bessemer Venture Partners, Lemnos Labs, RRE Ventures, and Vulcan Capital. Investments like these would have been very hard to come by just a few years ago. But these investors are convinced that in just a few years, data from smallsats will begin impacting business models around the world.

Planet Labs is one of the early entrants in the smallsat space. It was established in 2010. And by 2015, it had gathered over $183 million in funding, and acquired almost two-decade-old Blackbridge-RapidEye constellation of satellites. Today, Planet Labs claims to have more than 400 customers. The company is chasing a long sought-after goal in the industry — to have an image of every spot on the globe, updated at least once every day. It believes it can achieve that goal some point between when its 100th and 200th satellite enters the orbit.

Another start-up, Skybox Imaging, raised about $91 million in venture capital for its minifridge-sized satellites. The company was acquired by tech giant Google for $500 million in 2014. After the acquisition, Google has now renamed the company to Terra Bella to drive home the point that the company will not only put small imaging satellites into orbit, it would also analyze subsequent images.

For PlanetiQ’s Miglarese, the venture capital community is very detail-oriented. “They want to weigh the risk-reward on the amount of money they are willing to put forward and the amount that it costs to build these instruments,” she maintains.

BlackSky founder and CEO Jason Andrews believes that the industry is transitioning from the first phase of satellite imagery, which was all about mapping, to the next wave of satellite imagery, which is all about revisit rates, activity-based intelligence and using lower cost satellites for monitoring purposes.

“The investment community sees a lot of upside opportunity in that,” Andrews points out. “The global economy today is around $78 trillion. Even if we spend a small percent of that on economic and military intelligence, we are still looking at a potential market size of $100 billion for our industry. Right now, we are standing at only about $1.5 billion. There’s a huge gap between where we are today and where we could be. The investors realize what a huge opportunity looking at the planet in real time could be.”

Riding on earth observation

A study by Northern Sky Research has revealed that earth observation is the primary driver behind this industry’s growth. This is because earth observation market suffers from data poverty in many industry verticals, like agriculture, disaster management, forestry and wildlife. The research firm believes that a staggering 40% of the nano and microsatellites, which are to be launched by the end of year 2024, will be for earth observation applications. For Euroconsult’s Keith also EO is the wisest start for emerging players in this industrial process with the potential of developing more extensive programs later on.

Fabrizio Pirondini, CEO, Deimos Imaging, agrees. “The business of EO imagery is very much government driven. But, now, we are seeing a new B2C business developing on the top of this, and that is fuelled by nanosatellites,” he insists.

The EO industry is witnessing trends like better resolution, improved accuracy, faster access to imagery and larger volumes of data to handle. Resolution is an important criterion, but it’s not the only one anymore. Equally important is the freshness of the data that the companies bring to their customers.

Out with the old, in with the new

The swift pace of the small satellite revolution is making companies rethink their business models as well. While Andrews believes that the strength of nanosatellites lies in their ability to track things that drive commerce around the planet (cars, trucks, trains), Planet Labs President Robbie Schingler is of the view that in the future, people will subscribe to information feeds rather than pixels.

 

earth observation small satellites

“With the proliferation of new sensors in space, we are in the midst of a sensor revolution. This would lead to changing business models,” insists Schingler. “It makes more sense for a company today to keep the vast amount of data it collects with itself, and then write their applications through a Web-based API. In the near future, value added service providers will come up with very interesting algorithms and information feeds.”

Andrews maintains that BlackSky will not be stepping up the resolution game anytime soon. “Right now, the resolution of our satellites is 1 meter. Our business is to enable people to look at the global economy, and 1 meter is the critical resolution required to do that. We have no intention of going for big satellites with 30-cm resolution. We believe it’s all about revisit rates and persistence; so we will stay optimized around that solution space,” he says.

Up, up and away

However, the key question remains — how do we get these satellites into orbit? On June 28, 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded minutes after it took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Planet Labs lost all eight of its satellites aboard. In fact, by mid-2015, analysts had expected around 100 smallsats to be launched. Only 50 made it to space. The launch industry has to understand that if it can’t begin launching more frequently, and more reliably, smallsat assets will remain trapped on earth. Also, when small satellites have to “piggy back” onto heavy-lift rockets whose primary mission is to bring a bigger payload to a specific orbit, it becomes difficult for them to easily get where they need to go.
This is where New Zealand-based Rocket Lab comes in. The spaceflight operator, which plans to begin commercial operations this year, is currently taking online bookings for CubeSats. You can select a date, a destination and even your satellite’s position on the rocket, just as you would do while booking an airline ticket for yourself. Launch fees start from as little as $50,000. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck has even said that if the company has trouble filling seats close to the time of the launch, they will dish out discounts to make sure that the flight is full.

Spire CEO Peter Platzer is so upbeat about having a launch provider that would cater to his precise needs that he has signed an agreement to use Rocket Lab facilities for 12 launches over the next 18 months. “It’s the difference between relying on your neighbors to alert the police if someone breaks into your home when you are away, and having a silent alarm linked directly to the police,” he says.

Business tycoon Richard Branson is convinced small is the new big. His company Virgin Galactic has bagged a contract to place around 648 micro-
satellites into orbit over 39 launches. These tiny sats will be carried into space by a two-stage rocket called LauncherOne. The microsats that the rocket will debut with have been commissioned by OneWeb, which aims to build the world’s largest satellite network for global Internet access.

 

earth observation small satellites

But there are other companies also which have also expressed interest in Virgin Galactic’s launch services. These include Terra Bella, GeoOptics, Spaceflight and Planetary Resources.

NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative has also come to the industry’s rescue. The initiative allows small satellite payloads to fly on NASA rockets planned for upcoming launches. NASA has selected 105 CubeSats from 30 US states till date. Out of these, 37 have already been launched, and 16 more are scheduled to go into space by the mid of 2016.

What about the junk?

As space gets sprinkled with teensy satellites, the population of debris or “space junk” is also increasing. NASA estimates there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked. And small satellites go into the low-earth orbit that has the greatest amount of debris already.

 

earth observation small satellites

Gen. John E. Hyten, Commander of the US Air Force Space Command, stresses on the need for international norms to deal with space debris. “If you create mess in space, that mess is going to be there for generations to come. Right now, there are very few norms established for how you operate in space. We need to figure out how to at least get some stuff out of the geosynchronous belt — which is our most valuable real estate — to have a more pristine geo environment,” he says.

Hyten also emphasizes how responsible space behavior needs a new definition. “It doesn’t matter whether you are a commercial company operating 400 satellites or just one satellite, you have to be responsible and not create debris. You need to be transparent with the way you operate.”

As technological advancements, cheaper components and frequent, inexpensive launches make hurling spacecrafts into orbit easier than ever, it’s safe to say that small satellites will play a big role in the future. A boost in the daily imagery refresh rate will lead to newer applications in sectors like military, environment and agriculture. The marriage of small satellites with big data analytics is going to open up new avenues in the emerging space order. The world, as we know it, is going to change. And, right now, we cannot even fully anticipate how.