National defense is widely recognized as the primary market for the commercial Earth observation data (EO) sector of the satellite industry. While leading government programs have a clear mandate for environment monitoring missions, defense and military agencies are by far the first customers for commercial EO data. However, for the collection and distribution of commercial EO data to truly emerge as a commercial enterprise, the push will need to come from the private sector and foreign governments. A “killer application” that causes a sudden surge in demand may never emerge. But a steadily increasing uptake of both EO data and services usage across a range of commercial sectors and regions will allow the market to develop.
The new commercial demand will most likely come from local customers seeking data for regional purposes. These customers will be well served with the new push by commercial EO satellite operators such as GeoEye, DigitalGlobe and SPOT-Infoterra to strengthen their image collection capabilities through the launch of next-generation satellites and the continued development of global distribution networks operating locally through resellers. EO imagery and service requirements vary by customer type, with some preferring to acquire a service package and others just raw data. The question facing EO operators is whether to supply a full portfolio of services and delivery mechanisms, or to instead concentrate only on data delivery and allow their respective reseller networks and other services providers to provide the value-added services solutions.
Service providers and commercial operators will also have to work harder to educate some potential customers about the types of valuable data available. Two examples are agriculture and forestry, where resellers have found the customer base to be both cautious and unable to grasp the potential uses of EO data to their business.
For downstream services to develop, accessibility to EO data is key to delivering services. The free and open access data policy — as encouraged by GEOSS and coming to fruition through the free data available from Landsat and the GMES open data policy of the Sentinel missions — is viewed as a new opportunity for growth of the EO market as it can provide a more cost-effective business model.
The downstream services companies also need to become the “one-stop-shop” solution for both geospatial data and the services needed to access a range of data sources (optical/radar satellite, aerial). Services providers, resellers and operators all agree that the Internet is growing in importance as a distribution channel. They see the Internet as key to addressing the private sector and an even larger consumer client base. The Internet can both educate end-users about EO data through virtual globes such as Google Earth, and also offer an alternative platform to deliver data and services to end users.
Adam Keith is a specialist in remote sensing and the principal author of Euroconsult’s Earth Observation and Defense & Security reports. He also contributes to a number of other consulting projects, particularly related to the institutional market. Prior to joining Euroconsult, he worked in the Directorate of Earth Observation at the European Space Agency. He is a graduate of the University of London and Cambridge University.