9 Earth-Imaging Start-ups to Watch

A tech boom will shake up commercial satellite imaging

Words like “provocative,” “disruptive,” and “game-changing” are rarely applied to the staid world of satellite imaging. But that’s exactly the kind of talk the industry is generating, with the successful launches of more than two dozen Earth-imaging satellites in the last few months and the planned launches of yet more by year’s end.

Those spacecraft are being lofted not by traditional aerospace players but by venture-capital-funded start-ups. What’s more, the satellites cost an order of magnitude less than traditional spacecraft, and in many cases they’ll be networked in large constellations capable of revisiting sites far more frequently than what’s now possible. So even though their per-pixel resolution won’t compete with satellites from market leader DigitalGlobe, they’ll be able to provide much fresher data—in some cases, revisiting sites up to several times a day—at a much cheaper price.

The press has made much of start-up Skybox Imaging’s projected ability to count all the cars in every Walmart parking lot in America on Black Friday. And a reporter at Mashable recently suggested that start-up Planet Labs’ CubeSat constellation, had it been operational, could have spotted missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 within hours. But there are many other uses for these tiny spacecraft, including assessing storm damage to verify insurance claims, monitoring crop health to predict seasonal yields, and mapping human rights abuses like the bombing of civilian areas.

Industry experts seem to agree that those applications are just the starting point. “It’s like the iPhone,” says Peter Wegner, director of advanced concepts at the Space Dynamics Laboratory. “You never knew you needed a device with a GPS and an accelerometer, but once you’ve got the capability at your fingertips, you suddenly realize all the things you can do.”

The start-ups are keeping costs down by keeping their spacecraft small and in many cases by creatively scavenging components from other industries. As director of engineering at NASA’s Ames Research Center from 2005 to 2011, Pete Klupar pushed for exactly the kind of cheaper, smaller spacecraft that are now going into orbit. He notes that Skybox and Planet Labs “are using IMUs [inertial measurement units] from video games, radio components from cellphones, processors meant for automobiles and medical devices, reaction wheels meant for dental tools, cameras intended for professional photography and the movies, and open-source software available on the Internet.”

“What these companies are doing is very unique, very exciting,” he adds. “Instead of developing their own hardware from scratch” as established satellite makers have tended to do, he says, “they’re taking the fruits of the commercial world’s labor and applying them to space.”

To be sure, offering images on the cheap isn’t enough to make a business. “Images are just raw data,” says Tim Brown, a senior fellow at Globalsecurity.org who specializes in satellite imaging. “You need to analyze the images and piece that information together with other information to get knowledge and ultimately wisdom.” What will differentiate the start-ups, he adds, will be issues like “latency, reliability, accuracy, how much tinkering of pixels do I have to do, how user friendly is the interface.”

That’s a lesson that Germany’s RapidEye learned the hard way. It launched five dishwasher-size satellites in 2008, with the aim of providing 5-meter-resolution imagery at a fraction of the cost of its competitors. But it struggled, declared bankruptcy, and in 2011 was bought by the Canadian company BlackBridge. CTO Scott Soenen says RapidEye stumbled because it targeted customers “too far downstream.” In the agricultural sector, for instance, it tried to sell directly to farmers without really understanding what they wanted and before it had a deep bank of imagery. “These days we’re more focused on building tools for our partners to easily access and work with the imagery,” he says, “and we’re seeing strong year-over-year growth.” BlackBridge will announce plans for its next generation of satellites in the coming months.

Right now, there’s at most two dozen nonmilitary satellites doing Earth imaging, notes Alex Herz, CEO of Greenbelt, Md.–based Orbit Logic, which makes mission-planning software for satellites. (And if you want to know exactly when any of those satellites is passing overhead, try the company’s SpyMeSat app for iPhone and Android.) “Five years from now, there might be 200 or more up there,” he says.

Brown agrees. “With all these start-ups, the things you’ll be able to do with satellite images will grow exponentially. Pretty soon, you’ll have a world where pretty much nothing goes undetected.”

Here, then, is a short list of imaging start-ups looking to make that world a reality.

  • Skybox Imaging

    Mountain View, Calif.

    What: High spatial- and temporal-resolution Earth imaging (including high-definition video) at a competitive price.

    How: A planned 24-satellite constellation within the next five years, starting with SkySat-1 (launched November 2013), SkySat-2 (launching mid-2014), and SkySat-3 (late 2014); six more are set for late 2015. According to Skybox, each satellite costs less than US $20 million to put into space, with a planned life span of 6-plus years. SkySat-1’s 0.9-meter-per-pixel resolution is the best to date among the start-ups’ offerings, although still lower than established operator DigitalGlobe’s spacecraft. A full constellation will enable revisits of any spot on Earth up to four times daily.

    Verdict so far: “I’m most impressed with Skybox’s high-resolution video. It’s almost mind-blowing to think of what you could do with that information.”—Peter Wegner, director of advanced concepts at the Space Dynamics Laboratory

  • Planet Labs

    San Francisco

    What: Medium-resolution “whole Earth” imaging with unprecedented frequency for both commercial and humanitarian ends.

    How: Large constellations of nanosatellites (“flocks of doves,” in the company’s parlance) based on CubeSat architecture that will fly in a low Earth orbit of about 400 kilometers. At press time, Planet Labs was in the process of releasing 28 satellites from the International Space Station, following the successful launch of four test doves last year. An additional 72 satellites are due to launch within the next year, bringing the total constellation to 100. Each 10- by 10- by 30-centimeter dove weighs just 5 kilograms, has an image resolution in the 3- to 5-meter range, and is built to be expendable: According to Planet Labs, up to 20 percent of its satellites can fail without affecting operations.

    Verdict so far: “There’s definitely a niche where temporal resolution is more important than spatial resolution.”  —Charles Finley, spacecraft lead in the Department of Defense’s Operationally Responsive Space Office

  • UrtheCast

    Vancouver, B.C., Canada

    What: 24/7 high-definition video of Earth for monitoring the environment, humanitarian relief, social events, agricultural land, and such.

    How: Two high-definition video cameras (1-meter and 6-meter resolution) installed on the Russian portion of the International Space Station, passed their initial functional tests in mid-February. As of mid-March, the company had signed up 16 distributors for its video feeds. Being on the space station means the UrtheCast cameras have a constant ground link, so they can be “retasked” on the fly. Small satellites, by contrast, have fewer opportunities to link up with ground stations, so they typically experience a delay in receiving new instructions to reposition their imagers.

    Verdict so far: “It’s a great idea. It’s surprising that NASA did not think of this years ago.”  —Alex Herz, CEO of Orbit Logic

  • PlanetiQ

    Bethesda, Md.

    What: Atmospheric imaging for weather forecasts, climate modeling, and space weather prediction using a sounding technique known as GPS-radio occultation.

    How: A planned constellation of 12 to 24 small satellites; no launch date. The company says its network could help fill a looming gap in U.S. weather-data collecting that could start as early as this year and last 17 to 53 months, and it would be cheaper to build and operate than the government’s own weather systems.

    Verdict so far: Experts agree there’s a need for all kinds of remote-sensing data and for cheaper ways of acquiring that data. But PlanetiQ could face competition from GeoOptics, another start-up aiming to do the same basic thing, using the same basic technique.

  • Dauria Aerospace

    Munich

    What: Small, low-cost Earth-observation, communication, and navigation satellites built on contract.

    How: The German-Russian-U.S. start-up (sometimes called Russia’s first private space firm) is designing and building satellites for government and corporate customers, including NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. And it plans to launch four of its own satellites: Sagitta and Perseus are set to launch this year, while Pyxis and Auriga will launch sometime between 2015 and 2017.

    Verdict so far: “Rather than pursuing new market segments or novel hardware like some others are doing, Dauria’s plan is to sell to [the U.S. agencies] NOAA, NASA, and to European governments.” —Pete Klupar, former director of engineering, NASA Ames Research Center

  • Teledyne Brown Engineering

    Huntsville, Ala.

    What: Earth imaging from the International Space Station

    How: Like Urthecast, Teledyne is building a camera platform for the ISS. Teledyne’s is called MUSES (for Multi-User System for Earth Sensing) and is being developed with NASA. The platform can handle up to four digital-imaging instruments. The first of these, being built by the German Aerospace Center, is a visible-through-near-infrared spectrometer for applications like fire detection, change detection, monitoring sea lanes, and atmospheric research. The platform is scheduled to launch in mid-2015, the camera in late 2015. Unlike a traditional satellite, MUSES can be serviced and will piggyback on existing space station launches and data links.

    Verdict so far: “The MUSES approach is interesting because it takes advantage of the manned nature of the space station. Their imaging platform supports multiple instruments that can be changed out over time.” —Alex Herz, CEO of Orbit Logic

  • Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems

    Irvine, Calif.

    What: Mission-agnostic CubeSat–based nanosatellites as well as CubeSat components for government customers and others.

    How: Tyvak offers a “complete nanosatellite solution”: building a spacecraft around the customer’s sensor payload, arranging for its launch, operating it (from Tyvak’s in-house mission control center), and then transferring the sensor data to the customer. Currently it’s at work on a pair of NASA-funded experimental spacecraft called the Proximity Operations Nanosatellite Flight Demonstration, which will attempt the kind of satellite rendezvous and docking you might need for a Mars or asteroid sample return mission. Launch is set for mid-2015. Company cofounder Jordi Puig-Suari, along with Bob Twiggs, invented the CubeSat standard.

    Verdict so far: According to the company, Tyvak has seen yearly sales growth of 40 to 50 percent since its founding in 2011. If you’ve got a space-based mission in mind, but no clue how to do the “space” part, Tyvak could be a good choice.

  • NovaWurks

    Los Alamitos, Calif.

    What: Small modular spacecraft, called Hyper-Integrated Satlets or HISats, that can be reconfigured for any payload or mission.

    How: Main focus at present is a US $42.6 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Phoenix program to build HISats that will attach themselves to dead but still orbiting satellites and bring them back online. The company also plans to launch and operate its own HISats for space-based imaging and greenhouse gas emissions measurements.

    Verdict so far: “NovaWurks specializes in hyperintegration—that is, they will use the same power supply for, say, a star tracker and the payload. This is a very different approach to main line systems engineering, but it harkens to classical systems engineering of the ’50s and ’60s.” —Pete Klupar, former director of engineering, NASA Ames Research Center

  • GeoOptics

    Pasadena, Calif.

    What: Atmospheric imaging for weather forecasts, climate modeling, and space weather prediction using a sounding technique known as GPS-radio occultation.

    How: A planned 24-satellite constellation by end of 2018, with the launch of the first test spacecraft set in the second half of 2015. Through use of low-cost instruments, low-cost satellites, and low-cost launch vehicles, the company says it can achieve a reduction of at least an order of magnitude in overall mission costs with no loss in data quality.

    Verdict so far: Convincing government agencies to outsource the collection of remote-sensing data is, at the moment, a tough sell. But if these commercial satellites are launched and start returning data at a fraction of today’s costs, it should be a no-brainer. GeoOptics’ main barrier to success is competitor PlanetiQ.

This article was updated on 1 April 2014. Dauria Aerospace is not jointly developing spacecraft with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited.

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