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Here’s Looking at You: A Race to Get More Eyes in Space

| January 3, 2014
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Planet Labs' Dove 2 photo of sea ice in the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland.

Planet Labs’ Dove 2 photo of sea ice in the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland.

Few of us, at least initially, will be able to afford the space travel that Elon Musk (SpaceX), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), and others are planning. We’ll have to be content with seeing space through the eyes of imaging satellites – and that’s, literally, an increasingly crowded field.

In November alone, 61 microsatellites, many with cameras focused on earth, were launched. We’ve already seen some of the high-resolution images they’ve captured: a spectacular shot of sea ice in the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland, a photo of farms between two rivers in Washington state, close-ups of an airport in France and a university in Abu Dhabi.

And on Dec. 23, Mountain View-based Skybox Imaging released “the world’s first high-resolution, high-definition video of Earth taken by a commercial remote sensing satellite.”

Local tech companies, naturally, are front and center. Skybox and San Francisco-based Planet Labs’ imaging satellites are part of the major disruption of government and commercially backed space programs. Their low-earth orbit microsatellites are small, cheap to build and launch. They tap the latest consumer electronics and cloud computing technology, and have an intentionally short lifespan.

The startups expect their clientele – including both business and humanitarian agencies – to be eager for their satellites’ frequently updated economic, environmental and security data, focused on everything from illegal logging to crop growth to the scope of massive natural disasters. With video, Skybox Imaging could help analyze movement, from supply chain monitoring and industrial plant activity to environmental and humanitarian relief monitoring.

Dan Berkenstock, Skybox Imaging’s co-founder and executive vice president, underscores the commercial benefits: “Satellite analytics, which help us understand macro economic activity in a new way, help businesses so they can see and quantify transportation, infrastructure, the driver of global economics – changes that impact the bottom line.”

Investors have lined up. Planet Labs announced on Dec. 18  that it has closed a $52 million funding round led by billionaire Yuri Milner (known for his early investment in Facebook, Twitter, Ali Baba), Industry Ventures, Felicis Ventures, Lux Capital, and Ray Rothrock. The startup has raised a total of $65 million to date.

Skybox Imaging has raised $91 million from investors that include Canaan Partners, Norwest Venture Partners, CrunchFund, Khosla Ventures, and Bessemer Venture Partners.

Planet Labs plans to launch 28 of their Dove satellites (approximately a foot long, less than 4 inches wide and 4 inches deep) in what they’re calling Flock 1 as early as Jan. 7. The satellites are able to capture images of up to three meters.

Planet Labs' Flock 1 satellites. (Courtesy Planet Labs)

Planet Labs’ Flock 1 satellites. (Courtesy Planet Labs)

“We’re not publicizing clients” right now, said co-founder and CEO Will Marshall, a day prior to the news of the $52 million funding round. “But we’ve exceeded in sales the amount from venture capital. We’re pleased with the interest.”

Skybox’s SkySat-1 microsatellite, launched on Nov. 21, is the first of 24 planned satellites with a one-meter resolution; SkySat-2, says Berkenstock, is planned to launch at the end of March. A third satellite will go up at the end of 2014 or early 2015, with a total of 24 satellites in orbit within five years. Skybox’s satellites are heftier, weighing in at about 220 pounds.

And while capturing and selling frequently updated photos of melting icecaps is probably a good thing, using these pix to determine how often your car is parked in front of your hideaway cabin might not be. How will these companies make sure their microsatellites are not used for nefarious purposes? How will they vet their customers? What will they say when the government wants all their data?

Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Collected by Skybox Imaging's SkySat-1 on Dec. 7, 2013.

Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Collected by Skybox Imaging’s SkySat-1 on Dec. 7, 2013.

Planet Labs incorporates into its mission that it strive to “do good,” “be responsible,” and “provide open information.” The founders, all NASA vets, believe they have found the sweet spot to meet the altruistic goals: “To best enable this mission, the company has selected a low orbit for its constellation and an optical resolution of three to five meters — a scale that allows measurement of a tree canopy, but does not compromise individual privacy,” said a June 26 statement. “

“We chose this resolution,” Marshall said. “We care a lot about creating a data set that is helping humanity.”

But last month Marshall told the Financial Times, “We are taking images of the whole earth so we can count every tree on the planet. It’s not that we’ll find a hole in the Amazon a month after the trees are being cut  down — we can see people logging the tree and call the Brazilian government.”

Skybox Imaging, whose founders met and started the company while still Stanford University grad students, also states that its products will not trample privacy rights. In the press release for its HD video, the company said, “SkySat-1 captures up to 90-second video clips at 30 frames per second. The resolution is high enough to view objects like shipping containers that impact the global economy while maintaining a level of clarity that does not determine human activity.”

For Berkenstock, it’s more a matter of “two different fundamental laws of physics.” Yes, Moore’s Law says that the technology will continue to improve, meaning what the satellites’ cameras can view will continue to get better. But camera lenses, he says, don’t improve at the rate of Moore’s Law, as they’re dictated by the laws of refraction. “The higher the resolution, the less area you can capture.”

And, he said, aiming for that kind of resolution is not cost-effective for Skybox. “We wanted to build the smallest, simplest box that could show things of value including the ability to count cars. But seeing the people would require a satellite that is 10 to one thousand times more expensive.”

So, maybe we can see this much clearly: The fine line between helping humanity and violating privacy is being carefully threaded, for now.

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