Google and Satellite-Imaging Startup Skybox Go From Neighbors to Family

Photo: Matt McDonald

Skybox built its first two satellites inside its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, just a mile and a half from its new parent company, Google.

Some acquisitions are head-scratchers but not this one. Google’s announcement yesterday of its US $500 million acquisition of Skybox Imaging makes perfect sense:

1. Google uses lots of satellite images in Google Earth and its other online tools. Right now it buys the image data from a wide variety of sources, and some images are out of date. Skybox makes satellites that can take high-resolution images faster than traditional satellites; it can photograph any spot on the globe three times a day. It can also take short videos and track movement. Will we see YouTubeSat, perhaps?

2. Google sells data derived from satellite mapping to businesses; Skybox’s business model basically involves selling satellite data to businesses.

3. Google makes no secret about its long-term plan to beam the Internet from the skies to remote parts of the world. It has been looking into doing so with balloons and drones, and, according to the Wall St. Journal, plans to spend more than $1 billion on a fleet of 180 Internet satellites. That would mean using fairly inexpensive satellites, and Skybox’s satellites, based on off-the-shelf components, are far cheaper than traditional communications satellites.

And, finally, Skybox and Google are Silicon Valley neighbors with similar Stanford roots. While Skybox certainly isn’t the only startup building small, cheap imaging satellites, it’s the only one in the same zip code as Googleplex.

Skybox—founded in 2009 by Stanford graduate students Dan Berkenstock, John Fenwick, Ching-Yu Hu, and Julian Mann—collected $93 million of venture investment. It launched its first satellite last November; its second satellite is due to go up on a Russian rocket this month but could be held up because of the Ukrainian situation.

An image of the Saga Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan, taken by Skybox's first satellite on 15 May 2014

While the initial commercial uses for fast-updating satellite images are pretty basic—counting cars in parking lots, tracking ship movements, assessing storm damage, monitoring croplands—the Skybox founders have been dreaming big from the beginning. 

A year ago Skybox cofounder Berkenstock told me, “We believe that in the long term satellite imagery and data derived from it could be an integral part of decision-making for billions of people around the world on a daily basis.”

Google, clearly, would like to see that happen. Google likes data and it likes analyzing data.   Said NSR Senior Analyst Stephane Gounari, "Google's acquisition of SkyBox imaging is not only about cheaper data for Google Map. SkyBox's high-frequency revisit is what Google is looking for. By late 2015 to early 2016, and until other constellations become operational, Google will own a unique tool. And beyond Google map, Google, whose success is based on data-mining and information, will most likely integrate this imagery with other sources of data to offer new types of information products."

So if a company is gathering lots of data (like Google’s recent acquisition, Nest), it could very possibly be Google's next acquisition.

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Tekla Perry
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