satellite imagery, the new challenges of the sector

The satellite imaging sector experienced a major technological evolution with the invention of ‘CubeSats’ in the early 2000s. After a reduction in production and launch costs, there has been a new wave of innovation in high value-added image processing.

Space industry has been growing strongly after the success of SpaceX. According to a report by the Tauri Group, in 2015, the total amount invested by venture capitalists in space deals rose to $ 1.8 billion, which was 70% more than the investment made in any year during the 15 year study period from 2000-2015. The giants in digital and chemical industries were quick to invest in satellite imaging companies. For instance, Google’s parent Alphabet acquired Skybox Imaging (now renamed as Terra Bella) in 2014 to improve its GPS applications- Google Maps and Waze. Similarly, Monsanto acquired the Climate Corporation in 2013 to be able to better monitor its agricultural plots.

The CubeSat Revolution

Over the past two decades, the existing space industry has been effectively challenged by new commercial entrants. This change was inspired by the development of nano and microsatellites. These devices are very adaptable and they come in all sizes- from the size of a shoe box (like the ‘CubeSats’ invented in 1999 by researchers from American universities) to that of a fridge weighing 1-100 kgs. These can be as heavy as a school bus and unlike the satellites sent in geostationary orbit (36000 km), these are sent to LEO or low-earth orbit (less than 2000 km above earth).

While some major players like SpaceX and OneWeb are aiming to set a globe-spanning satellite network to provide global internet access, most startups in the sector have specialized in capturing earth’s images. With relatively low production and launch costs, these companies can launch satellite Pleiades and show complete coverage of earth’s surface several times a day. Some also show details of less than one meter in size.

New production methods, new services…

Since 2011, every year, there have been 8 start-ups in the space sector. Those who do well are the ones that innovate in production methods or in creation of services. To reduce the production costs, one can adopt new ways of sourcing materials and components. For instance, Planet Labs manufactures nanosatellites by sourcing its components online. The company carried out 133 launches between 2013 and 2015 and is able to provide one image per day of every part of the planet, surpassing all the biggest satellites.

The services related to launching of satellites are evolving as companies like Vector Space System are developing their own rocket launchers for small satellites. This means that waiting times are less in comparison to conventional launchers and customers no longer need to depend on fixed launch dates.

With the launch of the second Sentinel-2 satellite on March 2017, Europe has distinguished itself in political and technological domains. The two Sentinel satellites are intended to monitor development of crops and forests, land use, agricultural practices and produce and the impacts of climate change on coasts. They give a complete image of the globe in 5 days (compared to 10 days before) and supply low resolution and multispectral images. This means that they also capture infrared and ultraviolet radiations, which makes it easier to detect chlorophyll levels in forests and need for soil irrigation. Actually, the major change comes from the decision taken by CNES to distribute these images free of charge, which is a big step towards open data mentality.

… and image processing with high added value

Satellite imagery processing and all related services are booming, thanks to computer vision and machine learning technologies. Processing and analysis of this raw geolocated data enriches topographical information and makes it possible to do things like making economic predictions and monitoring of land and sea areas for environmental reasons.

Among the new entrants in this market, Orbital Insight made a splash by calculating the number of oil reserve tanks in China (Current storage-600 million barrels; Maximum capacity-900 million barrels) by tracking the depth of shadows visible on top of the floating lids of the tanks. Another startup Descartes Labs has built a visual search engine that allows one to index satellite imagery. SpaceKnow has created an economic index with the help of satellite imagery and their predictive algorithms to monitor the activities at 6000 industrial facilities in China. Earth Cube provides monitoring and change detection services using a technology derived from medical imaging industry and its technology can process even infrared images.

Down the service chain, Happs is the only data provider that’s capable of producing geolocal information for players in the green economy with the aid of typographic, architectural and socio-demographic information, satellite imagery and predictive models. It can characterize buildings and plots by providing the characteristics of buildings’ rooftops and by detecting any presence of swimming pools or trees. The strength of this project lies in combining satellite imagery with other geolocal information to derive information of high added value.

More articles