Planet unveils satellite imagery online tool

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WASHINGTON — Planet, the San Francisco startup that began building a constellation five years ago to offer frequently updated Earth imagery, took a major step towards achieving that goal March 10 when it unveiled Planet Explorer Beta, an online geospatial data tool.

“You can search an area of the world you care about and see changes,” Robbie Schingler, Planet co-founder and chief strategy officer, said March 9 at the Satellite 2017 conference. “This is extremely useful for us as citizens, as inhabitants of spaceship Earth, and also for businesses and governments.”

Satellite imagery online today is typically years old, Will Marshall, Planet co-founder and chief executive said in a March 10 blog post on the company’s web site. “Planet’s imagery is different because there’s more of it, and it’s far more up to date. With Planet Explorer Beta users can for the first time browse and see change month by month across the whole planet: every port, every farm, every forest, every city,” Marshall said.

Planet operates the world’s largest Earth observation constellation with 149 satellites, including 144 five-kilogram Dove cubesats and five larger RapidEye satellites. Planet launched 88 Doves in February on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

Planet is in the process of acquiring Google’s Terra Bella Earth imaging business with its seven SkySat high-resolution imaging satellites. That deal, announced last month, expected to clear regulatory hurdles within a couple months, Schingler said.

With its current fleet, Planet collects imagery covering about 50 million square kilometers — nearly one-third of Earth’s land area — daily, Schingler said.

Each Planet Explorer Beta basemap is made from more than two million satellite images automatically processed and stitched together, Marshall said. Images offer a resolution of three to five meters per pixel, which is enough for users to see individual trees and ships, but not people or license plates. “The goal is to see broad-scale change,” Marshall added.

Planet’s largest and fastest growing commercial market is agriculture. Remote sensing data gives agriculture customers the ability to classify crops and monitor productivity, Schingler said.

The firm’s government business also is growing rapidly. Customers include government agencies in countries that don’t have their own Earth observation satellites. Even in countries that have sophisticated Earth observation satellites, government customers often turn to Planet because of its comprehensive dataset and frequently updated imagery, Schingler added.

Traditionally, government agencies have used space-based cameras to capture extremely high-resolution images of particular areas of interest. Often, the person who selects those targets has “four stars on his shoulder,” Schingler said. “There still are people who wear suits and have requirements but don’t get access to that imagery.”

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