Thanks to incredibly shrinking satellites and launch costs, thousands of satellites are sending down streams of data about the state of our planet. But how much effort is going into making sense of all that data?
Not enough, leaders of the commercial space industry said this week at The Economist’s “New Space Age” conference in Seattle. And therein lies an opportunity.
The data gap is so wide that former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who is now executive director of the Air Line Pilots Association, half-jokingly suggested that the space agency could hold up on launching new Earth science missions and focus instead on analyzing the results from existing missions.
So many commercial ventures are getting into Earth observation, remote sensing and telecommunications that the U.S. government will have to think twice about how it adds still more satellites to the mix.
“If the government builds another imaging or communications satellite, they are stealing from the American people, and our future,” Garver said Thursday during a panel discussion at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
After the talk, Garver told GeekWire that mission managers aren’t allocating nearly enough money in their budgets for satellite data analysis.
“For Earth science analytics, you start out hoping for between 5 and 10 percent, and that gets shrunk over time,” she said. “I think we should focus more than half the budget on data. The analysis should drive the Earth science budgets.”
Putting together the bigger picture is even more important when you factor in the data available from sensors that are closer to the ground.
“When you look at the data now coming from drones and satellites, the interaction of all that data is going to be transformative,” Garver said.
Carissa Bryce Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, agreed that the space age is turning into the data age.
“What satellite companies are seeking to do is, for the first time ever, have a picture of and information about everything that’s happening on the entire Earth at one time,” she said. “That’s extraordinary from a data standpoint. The opportunity to create that data set … mine it, interpret it and sell the knowledge that comes from it, that’s what’s different.”
That capability doesn’t come cheap. It costs millions of dollars to develop and deploy a satellite constellation, even in the Cubesat era. But Peter Platzer, CEO of San Francisco-based Spire, said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“It is hard to get there in the first place, but once you’re there, it is a huge barrier to entry,” Platzer said.
The applications for satellite data are legion: Farmers and investors can check multispectral snapshots to monitor crop production. Land-use planners can evaluate stages of development over time. Shippers can track maritime and aerial traffic and look for trends. Clients can get customized, highly focused weather forecasts.
Often the payoff can’t be measured in dollars and cents: Over the past couple of years, satellite readings from DigitalGlobe have contributed to exposés on slave labor and smuggling on fishing vessels around the world. And in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, emergency responders can assess how best to deal with the aftermath.
But dollars and cents are likely to determine who’ll win out in the market for interpreting satellite data.
“If there is a new space age, this space age is being driven by financial considerations as opposed to technological considerations,” Bryce said.
The pace of innovation can be dizzying. “You can go from idea to orbit in six months,” Platzer said.
New opportunities are increasingly focusing on what’s done with the data once it’s beamed down to Earth, said Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels, an early-stage investment fund.
“All the different companies are generating different data, and they don’t really talk to each other,” Anderson said. “There’s an opportunity to bring all of that information together, to be agnostic to where that data comes from, and to be the distributor of it. … I’ve seen a number of these companies pop up, and they have very cool platforms. The problem is that they’re usually bought up very quickly.”
Anderson could have been talking about Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, which bought up a Virginia-based company called OpenWhere last year and is now marketing the Spectra satellite imagery platform through its BlackSky subsidiary. BlackSky recently won a $16.4 million contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a customized geospatial intelligence platform, and it plans to get its own 60-satellite constellation into orbit by 2020.
Spaceflight Industry CEO Jason Andrews told GeekWire that there’s likely to be a limited market space for full-service satellite data services. Network effects typically dictate that one, two or at most three companies eventually emerge as market leaders — a phenomenon that’s familiar to companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook and their competitors.
How will network effects figure into the satellite data marketplace? Andrews noted that BlackSky is a relatively recent market entrant, but he takes heart from the history of social networks. “Facebook wasn’t the first,” he pointed out. “MySpace came before.”