Commercial EO innovation challenges snail-pace government timescales

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ROME — The gap between the speed of innovation in the commercial Earth-observation industry and the slow pace of government-funded projects is growing, according to the chief executives of Spire and Planet, two Silicon Valley firms that have put up hundreds of small remote-sensing satellites over the past few years.

Leaps in capabilities of commercial constellations of small Earth-observation satellites and the decreasing cost of their services were at the center of a debate about the future of publicly funded Earth-observation missions after Spire CEO Peter Platzer introduced the company’s ambition to become “the Amazon” of space.

Speaking Nov. 12 during the opening day of PhiWeek — a five-day conference focusing on the future of Earth observation held at the ESA Centre for Earth Observation here — Platzer announced that the San Francisco-headquartered space technology provider and satellite operator would be offering “space-as-a-service” packages in the form of constellations of payloads. For 20 payloads in orbit, Spire would charge as little as 10 million euros, or about $11.3 million.

“To anyone who wants to get a constellation of 20 payloads up in 12 months and do so with us for 10 million euros, come and talk to me,” Platzer teased the audience with what he called “the special PhiWeek offer.”

He said Spire, which launched its first satellite in 2013, had to spent in the range of a hundred million euros to develop its constellation. However, Platzer said, the firm is now able to bring the cost down for others by reusing their existing infrastructure, know-how and supply chain.

For comparison, Thales Alenia Space received 400 million euros in 2015 to build Sentinel-1C and Sentinel-1D for the European Commission’s Copernicus Earth-observation system, which provides Earth-observation data for free to academia, governments, as well as entrepreneurs seeking to develop new applications.

Platzer further criticized the slow pace at which publicly funded projects move, which leads to their failure to harness cutting-edge innovation. Constellations such as Spire or their counterpart Planet, which today offers daily revisits of every single place on the Earth, were considered inconceivable when plans for Copernicus and other large-scale government projects were being made.

Platzer, however, praised ESA for supporting the development of their space-as-a-service offering.

Planet CEO Will Marshall agreed that there is a need for public institutions to incorporate more flexibility into their budgets to enable their EO-driven services to take advantage of the latest innovations and disruptions.

“I think the best way forward is putting much more money into what is considered the data portions of the budgets and that then enables flexibility,” Marshall said. “You can’t very well predict what’s going to happen in a six years time, especially with AI coming at us from the side. But the most flexible way is to have flexible data budgets that make it possible to respond quickly to these changes.”

Marshall, however, said he believed that for at least some time, there would be room for publicly funded missions, such as Copernicus’ Sentinels, alongside the aggressively evolving commercial players.

“I think we will see the continuation of these flagship missions,” he said. “They are the benchmark, they are the reference. We can’t do what they can in terms of accuracy, radiometric fidelity or signal-to-noise ratio.”

Over time, however, the commercial players such as Planet or Spire will get closer to what was once only possible with expensive government-funded technology, he added. With the size of their fleets, companies like Planet can offer more than daily revisit times, something that the government missions in their current form cannot provide. These frequent revisits, Marshall, said unlock an entirely new area of applications based on real-time monitoring rather than mapping and assessing the situation on the ground retrospectively.

ESA is currently looking at concepts of future satellites that could expand the Copernicus constellation in the second half of the 2020s.

According to Andreas Viespak, who leads the European Commission’s Space Data for Societal Challenges and Growth Unit, the commission’s priority is to create a continuous pool of Earth-observation data that would be available to researchers and governments for decades to come.

“These large reference missions are here not just to deliver economic return,” he said. “I would be very happy if in 200 years time, with all the capability that we have, we will have these long data series where people would be able to make much more sense of what has happened to the planet than our current possibilities allow.”

However, he added, Copernicus will likely be open to purchasing more data from private providers to improve the quality of the data pool and make up for its own shortcomings.

“We are cognizant of the fact that if we go out to the combination of different providers we will probably be able to provide a better performance than any individual one,” Viespak said. “We are systematically mapping everything that is available around the world and translating it into the performance requirements because when it comes to emergencies and security questions, people would generally say the same thing — they want much higher revisits, they want much higher resolution.”

He was skeptical about the ability of public sector operators to adjust to the pace of change in the technology world. “We have seen that not just in space,” he said. “In the EU, it is even more complicated because it was designed back in the 1950s and it’s designed to balance the needs of individual member states and that slows things down.”