A boom in Earth observation satellites creating new demands for intelligence

by
Crises such as the covid pandemic, climate change and the war in Ukraine are fueling demand for geospatial information

DENVER – Elon Musk earlier this month opened a new Tesla assembly plant in Austin, Texas, and predicted it will produce as many as 500,000 vehicles annually by next year. 

To keep a closer eye on activities at the plant, investors and financial firms  are turning to Earth observation companies like BlackSky that use satellites to monitor locations for customers. 

“We have a lot of interest in monitoring the Tesla facility that just launched,” said Amy Minnick, chief commercial officer at BlackSky.

Just by monitoring the Tesla factory’s parking lot and surrounding traffic, insights can be drawn on car production, she said. Electric vehicle market analysts and car companies, for example, will be trying to estimate how many cars are actually being made and will look at, for example, what suppliers are delivering parts and how often. 

BlackSky’s constellation of 14 satellites can image the same location 15 times a day. The company uses artificial intelligence algorithms to analyze  images and combine the pictures with third-party data sources such as radar and radio-frequency imagery.

Dozens of other companies are showcasing applications of geospatial intelligence at the GEOINT Symposium held this year in Aurora, Colorado.

The industry is now in the spotlight as images from commercial satellites and data extracted from those images have become a key source of information on Russia’s war on Ukraine. The technology also is seeing growing applications in global supply chain monitoring and in tracking the effects of climate change.

“Shippers who are shipping goods around the world want to be able to see if their planes are on the ground,” Minnick said. “Did their planes move at the time that they expected to move?”

“I think you’re starting to see use cases being unlocked through what we can do with our satellites and the capabilities of lots of others in the industry,” she said. And as the cost of producing and launching satellites comes down, monitoring services are now within reach of more organizations, Minnick added. Just a few years ago, “it wasn’t possible to be able to have same day revisits over commercial locations at a cost that was reasonable or to get the analytic insights.” 

‘Explosion in use cases’

Crises such as the covid pandemic, climate change and geopolitical events like what’s happening in Ukraine, is why “geospatial information will continue to be more and more valuable,” she said.

The war is having ripple effects in the price of commodities, for instance, such as wheat and fertilizers. “Gas prices are the most visible, but there’s so many markets that are getting disrupted by the crisis,” Minnick said. “There’s an explosion in those use cases.”

Kevin Weil, president of Planet, said a “food crisis” is one of the effects of the war because Ukraine produces a lot of the world’s wheat. “And so we’re working with NGOs [non government organization] who are studying what’s going to happen with the food supply, what’s happening on the ground today, because you can actually understand what’s going on from 500 kilometers above the Earth from a satellite.”

Planet operates more than 200 satellites that image the Earth. The company is launching a new constellation next year to meet growing demand for detailed imagery and higher revisit rates.

Nathan De Ruiter, managing director of Euroconsult Canada, noted that just a few years ago the conversation in the Earth observation industry was about “the right data sets not being available.” Now with a surge of new constellations, “the next step is really building and developing the analytics around it,” De Ruiter said on a podcast. 

Scott Herman CEO, Cognitive Space, said the new space economy is attracting massive investment, which is benefiting the Earth observation industry. A use case that is now in high demand is known as tipping and cueing. A satellite image might reveal some information but to get more accurate data, “we can tip and cue other satellites.”

In Ukraine, for example, “I take a picture, I instantly see there’s a Russian tank column, now I’m going to cue other satellites in my network” to verify and obtain additional information.