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Ontario-based startup aims to democratize global access to satellite data

A larger number of companies outside of the industry are now able to capitalize on the rise of the space industry. With costs going down, these datasets now become economically efficient to exploit, says James Slifierz, CEO and Co-Founder, SkyWatch, in an exclusive interview with Geospatial World.

James Slifierz, Co-Founder and CEO, Skywatch Space Applications, on centre stage during the opening night of Collision 2019 at Enercare Center in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Collision via Sportsfile

Tell us about your company and its vision?

SkyWatch’s mission is to aggregate and democratize the world’s satellite data through a single API and a simple user experience. We believe that, by making satellite data more easily accessible, especially to new entrants, we will enable businesses, applications, and solutions that were never before possible.

Remote-sensing data used to be a field reserved for experts and researchers. Now, with thousands of new satellites being launched every year, data prices are starting to drop and the refresh rates increased drastically. At the same time, automatically extracting intelligence from troves of satellite data is faster, cheaper, and easier than ever, even for people with no previous experience with geospatial data, thanks to advances in AI, Machine Learning, Big Data, and cloud technology.

As a result, we are witnessing an explosion of business applications using satellite data. And SkyWatch is playing an important part in unlocking these new markets for existing satellite data providers and yet-to-launch constellations by concentrating the demand from the growing developer market, a previously economically-inefficient market to reach through traditional sales channels.

SkyWatch offers complete digital infrastructure facility for assembly, packaging, warehousing, and distribution of Earth Observation data. How is it beneficial for satellite data operators and providers?

Partnering with SkyWatch is a cost-effective way to expand their market reach, freeing up resources to spend on stronger market differentiators, such as constellation size and sensors capabilities. With SkyWatch’s data partner solution, satellite data operators and providers gain immediate access to a scalable data processing and distribution platform.

Data partners can monitor current demand for Earth observation data, track open and fulfilled orders, and check YTD revenue generated on real-time dashboards.

With SkyWatch, satellite data providers can unlock new markets while reducing platform and distribution risk by investing in a proven solution rather than building in-house.

Who are some of your main partners and clients?

We are currently working with industry-leading data providers, such as Planet, SIIS, 21AT, and Spacewill to only name a few.

EarthCache is used by clients in a number of industries, from oil & gas, energy, agriculture, construction, mining, forestry, insurance, and smart cities.

EarthCache is a cloud-based platform that helps in integration of different data streams to gain actionable insights. It also has an intuitive code builder that helps configure data parameters and provides the API to the developers. How reliable and accurate would this be for the developers, and could you tell us more about its functioning?

EarthCache was built for developers, by developers. From the beginning, we designed a platform that would help application developers programmatically obtain the data they need for their business needs. Our platform was meticulously designed to remove as many steps in the data ordering process as possible, enabling true machine-to-machine access to satellite data. EarthCache is the simplest way to get satellite data for your application.

With a few lines of code, developers can build pipelines that will request data based on a set of specified attributes, including cloud coverage, resolution, collection times, and frequency at which new data should be delivered (for time series). Our platform, EarthCache, will then find the data best suited for each pipeline and return it to the user, pre-clipped to their exact area of interest, pre-processed, and in their preferred format. This includes future data, where a pipeline will automatically trigger a tasking order for one of our data partners and return newly collected and processed data at times specified by the user. All data is made available for download to our users, for direct integration into any application or further analytical processing on their end.

For example, a construction company could build an application that will automatically request new high resolution, cloud-free, optical images to be delivered to their safety team after large rainfalls, along with any recent archive imagery of the area from before the weather event, helping assess whether a team will need to be dispatched urgently.

Also Read: Canadian startup aims to become the global reference for greenhouse gas monitoring

You intend to take geospatial analytics to the next level with EarthCache which would also be a single access point for application developers. In data analytics one of the major challenges is the widening gap between ever-increasing demand for highly precise data and analytics capabilities not keeping pace with it. How do you plan to address this in the future?

In the past, only companies with large enough budgets could afford to take advantage of satellite data. That was because the data was extremely expensive and because processing it required hours, if not weeks, of work from trained professionals. As with every technology, once it becomes easier to access by the general public, rapid innovation is to be expected. We are already seeing a large shift towards automatic processing for satellite data, and with platforms like EarthCache, companies can now automatically request and collect low, medium, and high-resolution satellite data over smaller areas at a much lower cost.

By developing a platform that allows developers with no previous remote-sensing experience to obtain pre-processed, ready to use data with just a few lines of code, we are helping new entrants join the ranks of satellite data users. A number of our clients are working on further processing these datasets and turning them into actionable insights for their corporate clients to use. Simplifying access to satellite data will drive adoption for the technology. This, in turn, will increase demand for satellite data, making it more economically viable for younger constellations to be launched.

In the New Space paradigm, big data, Cloud and AI would be among the key enablers and drivers of growth and innovation. How do you think the convergence of these technologies would redefine the space sector, and how do you plan to ensure commercial viability along with furthering cutting-edge innovations?

We are seeing an incredible growth in the space sector at the moment as a number of new entrants are trying to capitalize on the opportunities offered by the New Space paradigm. The space industry, historically, as grown by periods of spurts followed by a series of mergers as less profitable new companies get absorbed by incumbents and the winners of the race rise to the top.

Over the past 5-10 years, however, we have seen unprecedented growth, with record numbers of satellites being launched, the rise of reusable rockets, new sensor capabilities, and previously unthinkable refresh rates for satellite data. The new innovations made in the analytics space alone are just as striking. We are even seeing some established players from other industries jump in (AWS ground stations).

One of the key differences this time around is that a larger number of companies outside of the industry are now able to capitalize on the rise of the space industry. With costs going down, these datasets now become economically efficient to exploit. A dramatic rise in potential buyers for satellite imagery is driving innovation in the space industry and creating a virtuous cycle where more money gets poured into innovation for rockets, sensors, satellites, which in turn expands how the data can be used, furthering the adoption of the datasets among non-space related companies.

Could you briefly explain the three phases of data processing and delivery: Normalization, Aggregation, and Distribution?

EarthCache offers access to data from multiple providers through a single platform. For companies looking to use satellite data reliably and frequently, having the ability to order from multiple possible vendors through one single API request and almost instantly receive the data that best suit their needs can save them weeks of work. Our automatic data processing steps to ensure all data passing through EarthCache has been normalized to match in quality, regardless of the source.

Would the experience gained during building NASA Supernova app serve as a baseline and a template for further refining and upgrading EarthCache?

The SkyWatch founding members were part of one of the global winning team of the 2014 NASA Space Apps Challenge. They met at the hackathon and, after their initial success building Supernova, they eventually decided to continue working together and built SkyWatch. The company recently celebrated its 5th year anniversary. How does the saying go again, 1 year for a start-up is like 7 years for another company?

Also Read: NewSpace ecosystem propelling Earth Observation industry