WASHINGTON — There are nearly 1,200 Earth observation satellites in orbit, built by private companies, that are capturing huge amounts of data to monitor environmental and economic change. Companies in this industry, which rely heavily on defense and intelligence government contracts, are now looking for climate-focused customers that could leverage data from space to generate value for their businesses and for the planet.

That was one of the takeaways from a paper written by the World Economic Forum and the consulting firm Deloitte that was discussed at the WEF meeting that concluded last week in Davos, Switzerland. 

This has been a topic of interest to the World Economic Forum, which in 2021 published another paper titled “Space for Net Zero” explaining the crucial role of satellites in understanding climate change.

Brett Loubert, a Deloitte partner and head of the company’s space practice, hosted a panel at Davos on the topic of Earth observation satellites and what the industry can do to attract new users and customers. 

Companies in this sector are stepping up outreach efforts to educate corporations, nonprofits and other groups on the potential applications for tracking assets like forests and emissions, and to find new ways to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to derive value from the data in a more automated way, Loubert told SpaceNews

“The traditional intelligence community type applications are still going to grow and are always going to be in demand,” he said. But there is also a burgeoning demand for data related to climate and sustainability, precision agriculture, and ESG reporting requirements.

Companies need data for ESG validation, meaning that they need objective information to verify and substantiate their claims on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. This verification helps a company demonstrate to stakeholders and regulators that their sustainability efforts are genuine and not just “greenwashing.”

Companies in the Earth observation industry are deploying satellites equipped with instruments, for example, designed to detect and monitor carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.

U.S. government agencies like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provide large amounts of data at no cost, “but there is now more demand for more specialized and more specific use cases that require private investment in new technologies such as instruments to track methane emissions,” said Loubert.

Trying to demonstrate commercial value

Loubert said he could not disclose the names of Deloitte’s client companies. Broadly speaking, he said, Earth observation satellite operators are rolling out open platforms to lower barriers and demonstrate commercial value. This is part of a wider push by space players and investors to build out a customer base after pouring billions of dollars into satellites and ground systems over the past decade. 

The Earth observation market panel at the recent WEF forum concluded that there has to be continued dialogue between data suppliers, users and financiers, as these groups may not typically talk to one another, said Loubert. “One of the reasons I think we were on the agenda at Davos was due to the groundswell and momentum of climate and sustainability.”

A key message from the forum was that “the time is now to be having these conversations,” he said. “Exposing more people to use cases will be important.”

The latest advances in AI models and computing, Loubert added, “may create a new class of applications.”  In the same way that ChatGPT awakened the world to the power of large language models, he said, the development of more intuitive user interfaces will help put insights in the hands of business users instead of only data scientists. 

According to the Deloitte paper, “while technology gaps are closing, collective action and significantly greater investment are likely still needed to realize the potential benefits, which are critical for achieving climate goals.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...