Technological advancements and pathbreaking innovations have ushered in a new era of earth observation, making satellites more relevant to businesses and public good. Today, satellites as small as SIM cards and costing as little as $2,000 are capable of sending terabytes of images of the planet on a daily basis, enabling myriads of AI-driven applications that provide previously inaccessible insights on global-scale economic, social and industrial processes. This phenomenon, which is coming to be known as “democratization of space”, essentially implies that more people and/or organizations are participating in the industry. This is to say we are on the verge of a new space race where the players, technology, and services are as diverse as it is innovative. Let’s look at some of the key trends in earth observation.
The foremost trend driving the earth observation industry is the growth is availability of data, which has been fueled by an exponential growth in number of satellites. No longer are satellites as big as a school bus and take years to build. They can be as small as a breadbox or even as tiny as a mobile phone SIM. Naturally, they are smaller, cheaper and easier to launch. Micro satellites represent a disruptive force in the space industry as they have faster innovation and deployment cycles in addition to much lower cost structures. Currently there are 1,900 artificial satellites orbiting the Earth; 1,200 of them are for EO. Between 2016 and 2022, over 3,000 more satellites are estimated to be launched. It could cost as little as $2,000 to build and launch a satellite into orbit compared to $200 million 10 years ago.
Further, a very important development in the satellite industry has been the use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics in satellites, first successfully used and popularized by Planet. It is said many electronic parts used in a refrigerator or computer are perfectly viable for use in space, thus helping to drive prices down significantly.
Commercial launch services have also disrupted the space tech industry. Cheaper and innovative launch vehicles and ride share options are leading to frequent launches. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are granting easier access to space and pushing down costs and introducing a competitive culture to a conservative, state-run environment. Faster launches naturally mean more satellites in space and at a much cheaper cost
Increase in the number of constellations means reduction in revisit time. Some of the constellations are capable of covering Earth several times a week. Best case example Planet which covers every inch of Earth 24×7.
Shift from data to analytics
The Earth Observation industry has seen a shift with users demanding insights and analysis. Advancements in Big Data and Cloud Processing technologies are disrupting the industry like never before. Cloud technology allows a humongous amount of data to be not only stored but also analyzed online, making things easier and faster. Naturally, we have seen big earth-observation satellite operators also moving from merely selling pixels to value-added services. This market shift is expected to pit software-only startups against satellite operators transforming into full stack companies offering to value-added services.
Rise of Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence is disrupting everything and the EO sector is no exception. Just like other domains, the EO industry is also reimagining itself and witnessing increasing use of specified algorithms when Big Data and Cloud have become almost ubiquitous. Thanks to AI, data from space is becoming more accessible and available faster for businesses and governments. Machine Learning algorithms have proved to be a powerful tool for analyzing satellite imagery of any resolution and proving better and more nuanced insights.
Though still in its nascent stages, there are a few challenges as well in the application of Machine Learning on satellite images, including the extraordinarily large file size of satellite imagery and data format being exclusively designed for geo-referenced images that make Big Data and Machine Learning applications quite difficult.
We have seen major investments in startups leveraging Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to extract insights from EO data. AI-driven Earth-observation startups alone raised $96 million in 2017 — this is nearly three times more than in 2016. In 2017, startups working on AI-driven services in the field of satellite imagery raised significant VC funding. This includes Orbital Insight, Descartes Labs, Ursa Space Systems and Spaceknow.
Emergence of NewSpace economy in US
The last few years have seen a Silicon Valley like trend in the US with the emergence of a NewSpace economy. Today, there are some truly exponential growth opportunities in the Space Technology ecosystem as venture capitalist funds are getting serious about space. Private investors poured a record $3.9 billion into commercial space companies last year, according to a report from investment firm Space Angels. Over 120 firms made investments in space last year, topping a peak of 89 in 2015. The last eight years have seen around $25 billion in exits, as acquisitions and public offerings take venture capital investments from start-ups to the next level. Interestingly, the earth observation segment has been the biggest beneficiary among all.
Multiplication of national initiatives
Copernicus is de-facto a game-changer in the EO field, for data availability at this scale, frequency, and quality, with a free and open data policy, constitutes a fundamental paradigm shift in earth observation, for Europe and globally.
Then there are Initiatives by smaller nations to like those in Africa such as Kenya, Nigeria etc., and even those like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka which have either launched or are planning to launch own earth observation satellites. More satellites simply mean more data.
Advances in on-board technologies
Better space communication infrastructure leading to faster data downloads. So, initiatives like SpaceDataHighway, touted as the world’s first ‘optical fiber in the sky’, will be able to transfer very high-volumes of data from LEO and even from the International space station at lightning speed.
Then there are companies providing “infrastructure as a service” to the space economy by aggregating ground stations enabling communications for satellite operators. A case in point was the recent announcement by Amazon Web Service to provide ground station as a service. AWS Ground Station has the capacity to reduce the processing time from an hour to less than a minute, which is nothing short of a breakthrough given that normally downlinking a satellite image and getting it into the cloud takes around 60 minutes.
Even as constant advancements and improvements in spatial resolution and measurement accuracies with better cameras and sensors are transforming the EO industry, engine innovation and propulsion for microsats, better designs to focus on specific applications are also proving to be crucial.
From a wider perspective, systemic changes in how science is organized (Open Science), how businesses are conducted (digital economy), and how societies are responding to global challenges such as Climate change, Water scarcity or Food Security are re-defining the boundaries for earth observation.
If you are an earth observation enthusiast and would want to know more, check out the two-day summit on Commercialization and Democratization of Earth Observation at the Geospatial World Forum.
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