Home Articles Smallsat foray will add to DG’s high-res imagery arsenal

Smallsat foray will add to DG’s high-res imagery arsenal

Dr Kumar Navulur, Senior Director of Strategic Solutions, Taner Kodanaz, Director Leadership
Dr Kumar Navulur, Senior Director of Strategic Solutions, Taner Kodanaz, Director Leadership

What prompted this decision? Was it in the works for a long time?

Kumar Navulur: It is not about small or big satellites; it is more about the data needs of our customers. There are certain areas on this planet where we have really high demand. This is where we started complementing the small sat capacity on top of the satellites we already have. The second aspect is monitoring. Some of our customers want more frequent visits of data. Today, our high satellites come in once a day at 10:30 am. Now, with these small satellite constellations, in some places we can come back almost 40 times a day, along with our high satellites. So, it is a combination of what the customer wants, which includes capacity as well as monitoring in those areas.

From the strategy perspective, DigitalGlobe has been thinking about this for a while. We want to leverage our high-quality imagery and process it with smallsat data so that it becomes more accurate.

Taner Kodanaz: We believe that small satellite imagery is of limited value. What is unique in this deal is the combination of our high-resolution and accuracy imagery that only DigitalGlobe can offer because of the satellites we own.

In addition, we have excellent ground infrastructure and can operate on a large scale, which gives us the ability to perform coordinated task. Therefore, we will be able to address not only shortfall of the standalone small satellites industry but will also be able marry high-resolution capabilities with low-resolution capabilities to provide much accurate high-resolution content in the end. It is a unique combination.

What is the investment and revenue-sharing model in this joint venture?
TK: TAQNIA and KACST are responsible for investments in the space segment — building and launching of the satellites. DigitalGlobe will be responsible for ground infrastructure. TAQNIA will task and monetize 50% of the constellation capacity inside the KACST communication zone and it will earn a revenue share of monetization of all the capacity generated by DigitalGlobe. We will task and monetize 100% the constellation capacity outside the Kingdom.

How would you be positioning this unique capability of DigitalGlobe in expanding the small satellite industry?

DigitalGlobe Satellite Constellation as of 2016
DigitalGlobe Satellite Constellation as of 2016

With WorldView-4 joining WorldView-3 in the DigitalGlobe constellation later this year, the total constellation will have the capability to image a location an average of 4.5 times/day at 1m GSD or less

TK: This disruptive model will extend our position and enhance our ability to innovate. We believe that this is a validation of our leadership position in the technological and global industry space. So the model of this partnership confirms the value of our infrastructure and our proven tested value around security, scalability and others. So far it is the model that will lead the industry.

KN: From our perspective, small satellites are of limited use by themselves. In the end, we talk about pixel resolution. We launched 80-cm resolution in 1999. We have already launched 30-cm resolution. We have regulations from the US to capture 25-cm details. We are focusing on capturing finer details. But most of the smallsats are at sub meter resolution of 80 cm — very comparable to DigitalGlobe‘s Ikonos satellite. Smallsats are complementary and allow us to fill capacity gaps as well as provide monitoring for our customers if they are interested to visit a given location more times a day.

Should this be seen as an important signal for the EO industry that small and nanosats are here to stay and also play a huge role?

KN: It is not about the technology; it is about the content you are creating from these satellites. The one thing I am encouraged about is if you look at the option of geospatial imagery, since Google Earth came along in 2005, we estimate that there are over 2 billion users using the imagery today. So, that number is going to grow substantially as the number of smartphones goes up. With more usage will come more demand. From that perspective, the more satellites we have, the better to provide this information.

Will DG continue with its R&D and investments in the big sat area? Or are we going to see a change in strategy for future satellites from DigitalGlobe?

KN: Big satellites are at the core of what we do — high-fidelity, high-accuracy and high-finer detail imagery. We would be leveraging not only smallsats; we have been doing third-party imagery for a long time. So, our focus is on solving a customer’s problem by providing content from multiple sources. We believe that our high-quality imagery becomes the foundation to make them more accurate.

TK: We already have an existing vision for our next-generation constellation and this is in line with that strategy. I don’t think that this will be changing all that. In fact, this is all very much part of the strategy that we already have for our future. DigitalGlobe will optimize orbits in tasking new constellation with rest of its constellation to deliver superior performance. The small satellite constellation will give us capability and opportunity to optimize our existing assets, so that we can meet our customer’s demands.

Is the imagery market heading in the direction of commoditization?

KN: The number of consumers is growing exponentially. So, there will always be that aspect of commodititization because more satellites are coming in. So, if you look at the very high-resolution market, we are the only ones providing 30-cm resolution satellite imagery providers. And then when you look at the newcomers, the advantage we have over them is because we have a two to five year headstart, we have built a rich archive of 30-cm images across the globe.

Therefore, it is always a game of catch-up for the newcomers. So, commoditization for us is — yes, we have more competition, but we have a lot more users coming up. But, you will see us investing more in providing solutions to the data market in the form of platforms and Cloud capabilities.