Boutique sensors, commercial tasking could expand market for geospatial analytics firms

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This article originally appeared in the April 23, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Geospatial data analytics firms could expand their commercial markets with custom-built satellite sensors or the ability to direct existing sensors toward targets of interest.

“Having industry-specific sensors will become a reality,” said Steven Ward, director of geospatial sciences for the Climate Corp., a company based in San Francisco that shares soil, crop and weather data with farmers. “We are not too far from that model.”

The Climate Corp. wants access to high-resolution fluorescent sensors and frequently updated synthetic aperture radar data that is easy to process, Ward said.

“We are constantly iterating what our perfect sensor would look like,” Ward said. “We’ve got some examples in the field, on airplanes and drones but obviously that doesn’t scale to one billion acres globally. We know that we’re going to have to rely on space.”

Space-based sensors are expensive, however, and the Climate Corp. will not commit to buying them until it knows the cost and the value of the new data to customers, Ward said. “If something costs $5 per acre, I better find a way to create $25 or $30 of value for the grower, our customer,” he added.

Instead of operating its own sensors, Orbital Insight, a geospatial analytics firm based in Mountain View, California, is interested in tasking existing sensors and sharing its requirements with commercial firms building Earth-imaging satellites.

“Our biggest problems are access to frequent, high-resolution imagery and then multispectral data,” said Dave Story, Orbital Insight chief development officer. “I wish we could inform what you build so we can deliver answers to customers and all make money on it together. We share revenue Boutique sensors, commercial tasking could expand market for geospatial analytics firms with partners as we discover new solutions.”

Orbital Insight obtains data and imagery from many satellite operators including Airbus Defence and Space, DigitalGlobe, MDA, Planet, ImageSat International and Urthecast. Still, the firm is hungry for additional data sources because it constantly looks for new insights it can offer customers based on the resolution, frequency and spectral bands of available data.

“If I could afford tasking and direct collection on certain areas of interest around the world like the government, that would be awesome,” Story said.

Like Climate Corp. and its boutique sensor, Orbital Insight would need a clear understanding of the cost and benefits of tasking before it would consider that approach. “If we had an API to task satellites and predict coverage or a way to model that, we could run so many more experiments,” Story said. “Please give us an API to predict what we would get and we will rent your satellites.”

Analysts may be able to derive some of the added capability they seek with a better understanding of existing sensors like Raytheon’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, which flies on two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites.

“People think the sensor does what they are told it does but there is an enormous amount of untapped capability,” said Wallis Laughrey, Raytheon vice president for space systems. “We use somewhere in the single-digit percent of the capability.”

As the market for geospatial data grows, Raytheon, a well-known government contractor, is seeking to expand its role in the commercial Earth-imagery market. Raytheon is building its first commercial Earth-imaging sensors for DigitalGlobe’s WorldView Legion constellation.

In the past, Raytheon’s government customers clearly spelled out requirements for new sensors. “The customer would come to us and say, ‘We need it to do these five things,’” Laughrey said.

Now, Raytheon is collaborating with customers to understand what they want to achieve with new sensors. “Where we are headed today, certainly on the instrument side, is to have a dialogue and collaboration with folks in commercial industry and on the government side,” Laughrey said.

Speakers at the Space 2.0 meeting in San Jose, California, in early April said they welcomed that type of collaboration but cautioned that commercial firms can’t pay as much for data as government agencies.

“I’m never going to out-pay the military,” Ward said. “I feel like a lot of the industry is trying to break into commercial markets at defense margins. There is a difference between those markets. You can still have great returns on volume as opposed to unit pricing.”

Along with reduced costs, commercial geospatial analytics firms are eager for faster access to new sensors, which often take years to develop, build and launch.

“It behooves us as an industry to better anticipate what the demand will be in four or five years time when new sensors come online,” said Pavel Machalek, chief executive of SpaceKnow, a geospatial analytics company based in San Francisco. “I look forward to the whole industry shortening the decision loop from years to months. Imagine 3D printed sensors designed and launched in a matter of weeks or months, not years or decades.”

A shorter timeline from sensor development to operation also would help startups like Bluefield Technologies, a company based in Palo Alto, California, developing microsatellites to detect methane emissions.

It takes years to develop a new sensor and send it into space. Meanwhile, technology is changing and customer requirements are evolving, said Richard Lachance, Bluefield cofounder and chief technical officer.

“What is big data? What is machine learning? It’s changing day by day,” Lachance said. “We face a time when technology cycles are shorter and data is exploding.”