Op-ed | From New Space to Indispensable Space

by

The following was adapted from remarks delivered at the recent NewSpace Investor Conference in Menlo Park, California.

 

In many ways, DigitalGlobe is the original “new space” company, one that dared to create a new industry for commercial satellite Earth imagery more than 20 years ago. With a relentless focus on innovation and meeting critical mission requirements, we became a trusted partner of the U.S. government, its allies and a wide array of commercial firms and global development organizations.

In 1992, our founder, Walter Scott, started DigitalGlobe from a spare bedroom in his house with $3,000. In those days, few people outside of the Russian and U.S. governments had even seen a high-resolution satellite image, and no licensing regime existed. We were granted the first commercial remote sensing license, and we pursued private equity funding to build our first satellite.

That first satellite failed shortly after reaching orbit, and we went back to the drawing board. Our investors believed in the technology, the business model and the societal benefits of commercial satellite imagery, allowing us to build a second satellite. This one barely made it off the ground before its launch vehicle failed. We had one more chance, and in October 2001 we successfully launched QuickBird, a satellite that has served us dutifully for 13 years and will reach its end of life sometime in the next few months.

Those early years taught us many hard but incredibly valuable lessons about building, launching and operating satellites. We’ve now successfully launched six consecutive satellites that comprise the world’s most capable commercial imaging satellite constellation.

In late October we were reminded about the challenges and dangers of commercial space. A rocket headed for the international space station exploded just after launch, destroying, among other things, a flock of small satellites built by a startup satellite imaging company. Space is hard. And as we saw with the tragic loss of a Virgin Galactic pilot, space is dangerous.

While those events made the headlines, there was a “good news” story that same week, with a rocket successfully placing a critical new GPS satellite into orbit for the U.S. Air Force.

I bring this up to highlight the leaps that all “new space” companies must make to survive in the long run — evolving from the experimental, to the operational, to the indispensable. DigitalGlobe has succeeded by working hand-in-glove with our U.S. government and commercial customers to consistently deliver solutions that save lives, resources and time.

DigitalGlobe has been serving the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and its predecessor organizations for 15 years, and we are now in the fifth year of our EnhancedView contract, for which we provide sharable, unclassified satellite imagery to support operations all over the globe. NGA recently renewed our Global Enhanced Geoint Delivery (EGD) contract that provides warfighters and first responders with on-demand Web access to our imagery anywhere in the world within minutes to hours of collection, and which can be downloaded to mobile devices for offline use. We have added an array of new features to Global EGD in recent years and continue to do so.

The value we provide to the government extends beyond the battlefield to many regions struck by humanitarian crises. As part of the ongoing Ebola response in western Africa, DigitalGlobe has supplied current imagery as well as country-scale data sets that describe the human geography of the region, encompassing everything from language and ethnicity to transportation and communications networks.

Although DigitalGlobe has grown into a larger and profitable company, that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped innovating — if anything, we’re leaning into technology development like never before. When we designed WorldView-3 four years ago, we wanted to build a satellite that could see Earth in new ways, with unprecedented resolution, accuracy and spectral diversity. The imagery that satellite collects is enabling new applications for the oil and gas, mining, global development and agriculture industries, and it is allowing us to serve new customers that were previously reliant on aerial imagery.

We’re also investing in the creation and exploitation of what we call Geospatial Big Data. For some customers, having the sharpest image or the most accurate map is exactly what they need. But a much broader set of customers has no use for pixels — they just need answers. By coupling our best-in-class satellite imagery with unique analytic tools, crowdsourcing capabilities, multisource intelligence and subject matter expertise, we are able to help solve complex, global-scale problems for our customers. These are the capabilities propelling us toward our vision of becoming the indispensable source of information about our changing planet.

 

Marcy Steinke is senior vice president of government relations at DigitalGlobe. She is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and pilot with 25 years of service in the Defense Department, which included leading the White House Operations Directorate under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.