A New Era of Commercial Satellites

In the past years, in order to satisfy increasing consumer demand, new commercial companies specializing in remote imaging appeared on the market with new technologies and creative ideas to respond to current or newly emerging demands. Market competition made the creation of high quality services necessary while operating at low development costs. Among the newcomers, “Skybox Imaging”, established in 2009, stands out. Up to 2015 it put two surveillance satellites into Earth orbit, and it is the first company in the world to provide real-time HD videos, a service they secured on the basis of an entirely new data processing system. In 2014, Google bought the startup company for 500 million dollars. The startup’s main goal is to efficiently integrate data processing mechanisms and satellite images into its own online services.

In the past five years, entirely new tendencies emerged in Earth observation. Next to state actors an increasing number of commercial and market-based enterprises appeared, which have been able to cut their costs significantly, while the satellites they produced and launched into orbit are capable of providing more efficient and better quality observation. Among others, Skybox, Urthecast and Planet Labs are such startup companies. All three specialize in remote imaging, and the development of Cubesat satellites served as the precondition for their emergence.

Since their launch in 2005 more than ten years ago, Google Earth and Google Maps have done a great deal for the mass dissemination and the everyday use of satellite images. However, both applications have their limitations, and on the whole, they are unable to keep pace with the rapidly changing and ever more complex user demand. It is reasonable and indeed banal to expect that an application of this kind show the location of businesses, lodging, or tourist attractions that we, consumers, seek on a map. As Google’s satellite images encompass the entire Earth, it takes a year or indeed a couple years for the images to refresh[1]. Thus, it is often the case that GoogleMaps is does not display current conditions. As GoogleMaps is outdated, it is not competitive in market segments that demand increasingly fresh information.

Update frequency is only one among many consumer demands. Another cardinally important factor is image quality. As digital tools develop, consumers prefer ever higher quality and higher resolution images. So far, consumer demand has been strictly constrained by technology and regulations. Due to high costs, higher resolution satellite images were not available to the general public, as technical preconditions simply did not exist earlier. In terms of regulation, until 2014 the United States prohibited the commercial distribution of higher resolution satellite images: a pixel on an image could not cover an area less than 50 centimeters. In July 2014, this regulation was lifted.[2]

Up until then, high resolution satellite images were typically only available for military purposes due to legislation constraints. Ordinary citizens could only access low-resolution satellite images, which in turn were available free of charge. The company Digital Globe, situated between the two actors, as it were, provided higher quality images on a commercial basis but only up to the limit that was specified by US legislation.[3] Among Digital Globe’s customers we find the United States Department of Defense and Google, which used satellite images provided by Digital Globe to create Google Earth.

RECONCEPTUALIZED: URTHECAST, PLANET LABS AND SKYBOX

In the past five years, several new companies appeared on the scene offering new commercial services in remote imaging. Among these it is worth highlighting three startup companies: Urthecast, Planet Labs and Skybox. Despite the fact that all three companies attempted to respond to increasing consumer demand, each has developed a different approach.

Urthecast came up with an original concept. Rather than invest money in the development and production of its own satellites, it instead created a device that was capable of taking high quality images and video recordings. The device was then mounted on the International Space Station. One of its cameras was suitable for recording medium-quality images, while the other is capable of recording a 4K quality video recording in 1m distance.[4] The data is transmitted to Earth via the antennas of the Russian Roskosmos.

urthecast
IRIS camera of Urthecast, which is able to record a 4K quality video up to one meter distance. Source: Spacenews.com

In contrast, Planet Labs focused on quantity. In 2014 it launched twenty-eight satellites into Earth orbit in order to provide users with more and more up-to-date data. At present, the company has more than a hundred satellites in orbit. According to its plans, this year a sufficient number of satellites will be in space that the company is able provide fresh images and data from any point of the Earth every day.[5]

Skybox chose an approach that differed from both of these. They aimed to deliver high or even premium quality images and videos, the most important consideration being that these were backed up by data analysis. By the end of 2015, they launched two satellites into

Earth orbit. These provided such premium quality images that Skybox was the first company in 2013 who could shoot an HD quality video recording of the Earth’s surface from space.[6] Despite this achievement, Skybox did not turn its back on data collection and data analysis, which continued to shape and determine the company’s profile, but brought it more to the fore. Skybox collected satellite images that became publicly available in the past few years, and they became able to prepare astonishing analyses on the basis of their own satellite images and data gleaned from them. At this point, Google became interested, and in August 2014 bought up Skybox for 500 million USD.[7]

What is CubeSat?

CubeSat is a type of miniaturized satellite, which in essence is a 10cm cube that only weighs about 2.86 pounds on Earth. It can be assembled from generally available off-the-shelf materials, which makes it extremely cost effective. Its reference design was proposed in 1999 by Stanford University and California Polytechnic Institute.[8] The first CubeSats with this specification were launched in 2003. CubeSat satellites move on a low-earth orbit (LEO)[9] and has an orbital period of about 90 minutes. This orbit is accessible with low energy investment and thus it is the most cost effective as well. As the orbit is closer to the Earth’s surface, a lower-performance, inexpensive optics suffice to shoot images and signal transmission is also easier due to the shorter distance. Another advantage of CubeSats is their small size and shape: they can be put next to one another, they can be transported with relative ease and several can be launched into space at once. For instance, in 2013 27 CubeSat satellites were launched into space simultaneously.[10]

Why is Skybox dangerous?

In 2014, at the time when Apple was about to present its new iPhone, Skybox directed its satellites on Foxconn’s trucks, Apple’s main logistics partner. Once a complete analysis of truck traffic was prepared and compared with the previous months’ traffic, they deduced that Foxconn’s activity had increased greatly in the past few days. On this basis, they predicted the new Apple product’s launch and store availability.

  • November 21, 2013: Skybox launches its first satellite, SkySat1[13], and became the first company to shoot HD quality video of Earth’s surface from space.
  • July 8, 2014: Skybox’s second satellite, SkySat2 is launched into space, and a further 24 launches are planned for the two coming years.[14]
  • August 1, 2014: Google buys up Skybox for 500 million USD, its integration into Google has been underway since then. At the time this article was written, the company’s website, Twitter account, and Facebook profile were not accessible online, and the YouTube Skybox-channel only displayed “Coming Soon” to its visitors.
A REPOSITORY OF POSSIBIILITIES: NEW DIMENSIONS OF SATELLITES

The satellites used by Skybox and Planet Labs only cost a fragment of what previous satellites used to costs. This is the reason why a garage startup company could appear out of nothing on a market that was previously dominated by companies of large capital and states. CubeSat ventured precisely into this territory and revolutionized the industry.

Up until then, typically a large satellite with a long development history was launched into the atmosphere. This process was costly both in terms of time and in production costs: the price tag of a single satellite could reach several million USD. CubeSat satellites reduced this price to a fraction. The low cost was ensured by low Earth orbit (LEO), the satellites’ light weight, and the relative ease with which they could be launched into space. As costs were reduced, more sources could be diverted to new technical developments and experiments. Thus, the outdated satellite stock could also be reformed. If we make a guess regarding the future of CubeSat, then we see that the standards it created might soon make satellite mass production possible, which will lead to a further cost reduction in space industry markets.

SKYBOX’ BASIC CONCEPT

In 2009, four students of Stanford University (Dan Berken Stock, Julian Mann, Ching Yu- Hu and John Fenwick), founded their own company, Skybox, after having taken an entrepreneurial course.[12] Their basic idea was to regard the Earth as a giant, continuous data set. In order to process and understand it, high quality images were needed, which were, however, worthless on their own, as in order to understand them it was necessary to interpret, combine and process data mined from them.

Skybox therefore creates 1 terabyte of data every day, which it continually compares with the data in its database and analyzes them. Enormous software capacity is needed to keep this process running, software which is capable of extracting on the basis of a port’s image how many and what sorts of ships are moored a a harbor[15], or to establish the number of building plots in a city, or the level of preparedness of its buildings.[16]  Moreover, on the basis of Skybox’ images it is possible to successfully examine patterns of human behavior (for instance: mass demonstrations, festivals or even armed conflicts) and to make deductions about their mechanisms.

Skybox services are useful to the following sectors:[17]

– agricultural situation analysis, surveillance of fields, etc.

– humanitarian aid

– insurance monitoring (risk factor models) – provision of aids in the event of natural catastrophes

– commercial sphere, trade, finance (for instance, extracting the number and make of cars in parked in given city or district)

– mining

– monitoring sea traffic

It is easy to see that Skybox provides unmatched new services and opens new doors for its users. This, however, is not always positive. After all, it is possible to abuse the services provided by Skybox at any time. The ensemble of satellites and analysis capacity backing them is also in a position to provide a multitude of sensitive information for the government, companies, and their competitors. From this point of view, Google’s role is quite worrisome: a multinational corporation, which has practically secured an exclusive monopoly over a large portion of the data of the world’s Internet users, now also possesses Skybox, thus dangerous combinations have become possible.

 

[1] MEYER, Robinson: Silicon Valley’s New Spy Satellites. In: Theatlantic.com. 2014. June 7, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/01/silicon-valleys-new-spy-satellites/282580/

[2] VINCENT, James: Skybox: Google Maps goes real-time – but would you want a spy in the sky staring into your letter box? In: Independent, 2014. June 21, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/skybox-google-maps-goes-real-time-but-would-you-want-a-spy-in-the-sky-staring-into-your-letter-box-9553934.html

[3] MEYER, Robinson: Silicon Valley’s New Spy Satellites. In: Theatlantic.com. 2014. June 7, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/01/silicon-valleys-new-spy-satellites/282580/

[4] More info: https://www.urthecast.com/enterprise

[5] More info: https://www.planet.com/data/

[6] Video can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCrB1t8MncY

[7] MIMS, Christopher: Amid Stratospheric Valuations, Google Unearths a Deal With Skybox. In: The Wall Street Journal, 2014. June 15, http://www.wsj.com/articles/amid-stratospheric-valuations-google-unearths-a-deal-with-skybox-1402864823

[8] MEYER, Robinson: Some High Schoolers Built a Satellite and NASA Just Sent It to Space. In: Theatlantic.com, 2013. November 20, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/some-high-schoolers-built-a-satellite-and-nasa-just-sent-it-to-space/281681/

[9] A low Earth orbit (LEO) is an orbit around Earth with an altitude of 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) or less, and an orbital period of between about 84 and 127 minutes. Objects below approximately 160 kilometres (99 mi) will experience very rapid orbital decay and altitude loss due to atmospheric drag. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low_Earth_orbithttps://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alacsony_F%C3%B6ld_k%C3%B6r%C3%BCli_p%C3%A1lya

[10] MEYER, Robinson: Some High Schoolers Built a Satellite and NASA Just Sent It to Space. In: Theatlantic.com, 2013. November 20, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/some-high-schoolers-built-a-satellite-and-nasa-just-sent-it-to-space/281681/

[11] U.o.

[12] http://www.ditoweb.com/blog/2014/06/the-sky-is-limit-for-google-maps-skybox/

[13] More info: http://www.skyboximaging.com/

[14] VINCENT, James: Skybox: Google Maps goes real-time – but would you want a spy in the sky staring into your letter box? In: Independent, 2014. június 21, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/skybox-google-maps-goes-real-time-but-would-you-want-a-spy-in-the-sky-staring-into-your-letter-box-9553934.html

[15] MEYER, Robinson: Google Owns a Satellite Now. In: Theatlantic.com, 2014. June 10, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/why-google-bought-satellite-startup-skybox/371531/

[16] MEYER, Robinson: Google Owns a Satellite Now. In: Theatlantic.com, 2014. June 10, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/why-google-bought-satellite-startup-skybox/371531/

[17] http://www.ditoweb.com/blog/2014/06/the-sky-is-limit-for-google-maps-skybox/

[18] VINCENT, James: Skybox: Google Maps goes real-time – but would you want a spy in the sky staring into your letter box? In: Independent, 2014. June 21, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/skybox-google-maps-goes-real-time-but-would-you-want-a-spy-in-the-sky-staring-into-your-letter-box-9553934.html

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