BlackSky satellites produced at LeoStella. Credit: BlackSky

COLORADO SPRINGS — From hiking the price of cars to impacting the readiness of militaries, the havoc that COVID-19 wreaks across supply chains is far-ranging and sometimes surprising.

Pandemic-related uncertainty is driving demand for space companies that promise to deliver better insights about the world. Commercial and government customers are increasingly leveraging geospatial intelligence services to make more informed decisions.

“I think what COVID has done is it’s made people realize just how globally connected the supply chains are and how actually very difficult it is to monitor those around the world,” said Peter Wegner, chief technology officer of satellite operator BlackSky.

BlackSky uses artificial intelligence to fuse the imagery it gets from imaging satellites with other data streams, ranging from news and social media posts to information from terrestrial internet of things (IoT) sensors.

Wegner said the company runs detection algorithms on virtually every image the operator collects from the six satellites it currently has in orbit.

He said BlackSky has deployed aircraft detection systems for customers at hundreds of airports, has operations in place for monitoring ships, and plans to extend its tracking services to cover buildings and roads in the future.

Monitoring COVID-19 impact

In July 2020, the U.S. Air Force awarded BlackSky a contract to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on overseas bases.

“A lot of our service members live in the towns and around those bases and [so it is important to understand] the impact of local supply chains and availability of material goods and materials and how that might impact readiness,” he said.

More recently, Wegner said BlackSky was able to predict an uptick in the automotive markets, which have been in a slump amid a shortage of semiconductors.

He said BlackSky has been “taking pictures of hundreds of vehicles parked in parking lots all over the world, frankly, waiting for chips [and] over the last few months we started seeing those parking lots empty out and you can see that … these cars are going to start hitting the dealers’ lots, and suppliers are going to start coming up, and prices will go down.”

However, the industry remains far from being able to predict the future reliably.

“I would love to say that we’ve got this huge database on the whole planet and we can predict events, you know, well ahead of time,” Wegner said.

“And we’re certainly not there, but there are indicators that watching human activity is often a really good indicator of what might be happening.”

Investor attention 

BlackSky unveiled plans in February to raise $450 million by merging with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), in a deal that would list the operator on the New York Stock Exchange.

Proceeds will help grow the company’s constellation to 30 high-resolution multispectral satellites in a few years, capable of monitoring locations on Earth every 30 minutes.

Rocket Lab plans to launch six satellites for BlackSky between late August and the end of September from New Zealand. 

Wegner said BlackSky is on track to increase the size of its constellation to 14 by the end of the year, enabling roughly one-hour revisit cycles to the major populated parts of the planet.

Osprey shareholders will vote on the merger Sept. 8.

Spire Global, which gathers radio frequency data and provides analysis from its constellation of more than 110 satellites, listed on NYSE Aug. 17 after merging with a SPAC. Spire ultimately raised $265 million from the transaction to expand its operations, although that is significantly less than the $475 million it initially projected.

Planet and Satellogic, two other Earth observation satellite operators targeting the geospatial analysis market, also have plans to merge with a SPAC this year to raise significant capital for their businesses.

“As businesses began to pivot and map out solutions to the massive challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, Planet received many inquiries asking how our satellite data might be helpful,” said Andrew Zolli, Planet’s vice president of global sustainability and impact.

“In fact, the first requests came from journalists who were simply trying to understand what was happening on the ground in an effort to keep the general public up-to-date as the situation unfolded. Corporations, governments, researchers, journalists, and more turned to satellite data to collect information about operations and activities in places where sending people might expose them to unnecessary risks.”

Zolli highlighted how satellite data collection can provide a safe, affordable alternative to other methods of information gathering, potentially making it a critical component to an organization’s business continuity plans. 

“Additionally, by tracking the movements of goods in ports and elsewhere, satellite imagery can be used to measure the economic impacts of an outbreak, its pace of eventual recovery, and even help accelerate and focus these recovery efforts,” he added.

IoT backup

The rise in geospatial analytics services comes alongside rapid growth in the IoT market. Organizations are increasingly deploying sensors in their operations to make them more efficient, feeding into an insatiable demand for data worldwide. 

According to BlackSky’s Wegner, there will continue to be a need for space-based geospatial services even in a future where sensors on the ground are ubiquitous.

“Even in a fully connected IoT world, there’s always going to be a need to validate data independently,” he said.

A lot of BlackSky’s commercial use cases are built around verifying the tracking systems that organizations are increasingly incorporating into their processes, Wegner noted, including protection against spoofing. 

In a February investor presentation, BlackSky said it expects to generate $46 million in revenues in 2021, more than double 2020, before growing to $546 million in sales in 2025.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...