Rapid construction of high-rise apartment complexes on the city outskirts of Nanjing, China, following the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Credit: DigitalGlobe via Orbital Insight

WASHINGTON – Orbital Insight, a Silicon Valley startup that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to expedite the processing of huge amounts of imagery, has secured $8.7 million in fresh financing from an investor group led by Sequoia Capital, the company announced March 16.

The cash infusion will enable Mountain View, California-based Orbital Insight to hire more engineers and scale up its operations, which to date have been limited mostly to pilot projects funded by an initial $1.5 million in Sequoia-provided seed capital, said James “Jimi” Crawford, who founded Orbital Insight in December 2013.

Crawford, whose AI background includes Mars rover mission planning at NASA’s Ames Research Center and a stint at Google Books, the massive book digitization project, said the technology can automate the processing of reams of satellite imagery to generate useful information.

The enabling trend, Crawford said, is the satellite imagery bonanza being created by newcomers like Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs, both of which are operating small imaging satellites today and have credible plans to populate large constellations offering frequent revisit times.

The pilot projects, performed over the last year when Orbital Insight was a nine-person shop, have included using satellite imagery to count cars in store parking lots, enabling the company to predict sales of retailers well in advance of their earnings reports. Although the concept is not new, the application of AI – in which the software effectively “learns” how to count cars using techniques initially demonstrated by operators in the loop – allows the process to scale up to the point that it can cover millions of parking lots around the world.

Similar processes and predictive analytics can be useful to the real estate, energy and agriculture industries, to name a few, Crawford said in an interview.

Other participants in what Orbital Insight’s Series A financing round include Bloomberg Beta, Google Ventures, citizen.vc and Lux Capital, Crawford said.

The company is now expanding its engineering workforce from the current level of 18 to an expected 25 employees, Crawford said.

Crawford declined to disclose Orbital Imaging’s revenue but said the company is drawing income from small projects and trials with customers that include hedge funds.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...