The uniqueness of the UrtheCast mission is the two cameras (video and optical sensor) on board the International Space Station. Wade Larson, President and CO of the latest player to join the earth observation club, thinks the business model of UrtheCast could change the entire EO industry.
UrtheCast is the latest entrant into commercial earth observation business. Tell us more about the venture.
UrtheCast is a Canadian company, based in Vancouver, BC, that has successfully installed two earth observation sensors on board the International Space Station (ISS). One of the two cameras is capable of streaming ultra high-definition (HD) video in colour (the High Resolution Camera or HRC) of the earth while the other is a push-broom medium-resolution four band multispectral camera (the Medium Resolution Camera or MRC). UrtheCast is working in exclusive partnership with the Russian Federal Space Agency and RSC Energia, the Russian space company that was instrumental in sending Yuri Gagarin into space. As part of the agreement with RSC Energia, Urthe- Cast has provided the cameras, the data handling software, and the ground station network, while Energia has provided the hardware certification, the bi-axial pointing platform, the camera launch and installations, and the data downlink.
As of February 18, the cameras have successfully passed initial functional testing. Once test and calibration is completed, the two UrtheCast cameras will begin streaming footage of the earth from the ISS and will distribute it directly to customers or stream it to our interactive Web platform. This is the first time a commercial EO satellite will be producing ultra HD, multispectral colour video — accessible to the public.
What is unique about UrtheCast’s earth observation sensors?
UrtheCast imagery and video data will be collected from our cameras, which are installed on the Zvezda service module of the ISS. The high-resolution video camera is mounted onto a bi-axial pointing platform, and will provide imagery at spatial resolution of 1.1 m and 30 frames/second video with a footprint of 5 km x 3.4 km. Still shots are also possible with this. The medium-resolution camera is a pushbroom imager with fixed-nadir viewing and provides four band multispectral imagery at a spatial resolution of 5m, with a swath of 47 km.
Once collected, the data will be sent to our cloud-based ground segment infrastructure where it will be processed to generate the image and video files. Those will be either distributed directly to customers or put on UrtheCast’s Web platform for Web and mobile users around the world in an interactive, near-real time, ultra HD experience.
Why did UrtheCast choose the ISS as its platform?
The main reason for putting the cameras on the ISS is economics. We are able to put the senors in space for much less investment than would be required if we were to launch the satellites. In addition, there are some advantages to the ISS orbit, which is very different from traditional earth observation satellites. For one thing, the ISS has a lower altitude than EO satellites, which means we can achieve higher resolutions with smaller apertures (another cost saving). Furthermore, with an inclined orbit between 51.6 degrees north to 51.6 degrees south, lasting approximately 90 minutes per orbit, the cameras are able to cover 90% of the world’s population. This unusual orbit puts us at an advantage with high revisit rates and acquisition at higher latitudes. For example, at about 50 degrees latitude (north and south), the revisit passes per year is much higher than that of a traditional EO satellites operating in sun synchronous, near polar orbit. Another advantage is the ability to pass through a particular location at various times of day and night, something traditional EO satellites are unable to do as they cover any particular area at the fixed time each day. The disadvantage of the orbit, however, is that we will not have coverage of geographic zones above 51.6 degrees for the MRC or 55 degrees for the HRC.
How is the ground segment being planned?
UrtheCast is adopting a new ground segment business model. We are building state-of-the-art ground stations using open source and COTS products, leveraging on cloud and entreprise solutions. We are planning to have ground stations in Moscow and Oxfordshire as well as stations leased in Dubai, South Africa, Mauritius, and Singapore. We are also in discussion with a number of customers looking to purchase an UrtheCast ground station. Once in operation, we will buy services back from those ground stations according to its business needs.
What are the products and what application areas is UrtheCast envisaging with its imagery capabilities?
UrtheCast’s initial product offerings include ultra high-resolution video (Ultra HD video), subset of full frame, georeferenced high-resolution image stacking and imagery mosaics. The video and image stack would be radiometrically corrected and geometrically consistent. It is also possible to collect a path video or create a corridor product. Disasters, borders, coastlines, etc. can be efficiently imaged and monitored using our cameras. Our value-added products include super-resolution still images at sub-meter GSD, DSM, 3D models and enable fly-throughs.
UrtheCast sensors can serve a variety of applications. Apart from conventional applications, very high-resolution vertical detail of a building/structure/target are of high interest, while the high-level DEM created with several number of frames. Those would be useful for disaster management and environmental applications like monitoring hotspots. Video of such hotspots would enable the authorities to gain a better understanding of the actual situation
on the ground. Defence and surveillance is another major application. Applications like traffic movement in an urban setting are of interest to some customers.
What is UrtheCast’s revenue model?
UrtheCast is developing four distinct revenue streams. In addition to conventional EO data sales, we are including media outlets as a major customer group. To date, media outlets have been harnesssing EO imagey when it is offered as a free source. For instance, consider a major environmental disaster: for a media company to send a team to cover an event or a series of events over an extended period of time is cost-prohibitive and time consuming. UrtheCast’s video is a quick and affordable alternative, at times providing video in less than an hour.
Web advertising is another stream of revenue for UrtheCast. As the company expects tremendous Web traffic, giant consumer companies will be targeted to have, for instance, their logos on their locations in the video stream. Live EO video and data sales to social gaming, commercial apps and app platforms like Android, Blackberry, and Apple will be an additional stream of revenue.
Developers can build applications using our data and host them on the UrtheCast platform website. We will then sell these apps to customers and share the revenue with the developers. This capability will be game-changing in the EO market.
We are also coming up with channel sales and resellers worldwide to target conventional application sectors such as defence and surveillance, urban development, mining, environment, and disaster management. With all of UrtheCast’s capacities, we are postitioned to provide a new set of data and help address the supply-demand gap for high resolution satellite imagery worldwide.
What other initiatives are being planned with UrtheCast’s imagery?
In addition to UrtheCast’s commercial efforts, we have signed partnerships with organisations like the United Nations and Discovery’s Science Channel. We will provide data for humanitarian relief efforts, disaster management, and for media distribution purposes. A large portion of UrtheCast’s data will be available for public viewing on our interactive Web platform — the first of its kind. We think that this has the potential to change the earth observation business.
UrtheCast will be updating its platform with footage of the earth in a matter of hours, versus years for some other websites. Individuals will be able to view video and still images of major events across the world — be they social events, natural disasters, or weather phenomena. A realtime social layer will also be included in this interactive platform. Geo-coded video, imagery, and information available on the Web about that particular location will be included.