SOPHIA-ANTIPOLIS, France — A company specializing in the development of a multisensor image-processing technology already licensed to companies and government agencies in the United States, China, South Korea and Japan is growing at 10 to 15 percent a year by offering a solution to the growing problem of image-data overload.
France, a division of the Astrium space division of Europe’s biggest aerospace company, EADS, is basing its success on a processing system that takes radar or optical imagery from cameras on satellites or aircraft and turns it into a usable product using fewer people and much less time than traditional labor-intensive processing techniques, company officials said.
The core of Infoterra
‘s product portfolio is the Pixel Factory, a data processor that transforms huge volumes of data into maps for telecommunications companies installing cellular networks, urban authorities tracking housing permits and agricultural agencies surveying crop yield.
Depending on a given unit’s specifications, a Pixel Factory sells for between 400,000 euros ($504,000) to several million euros. Infoterra
, which has patented the core technology, has sold around 15 of them so far to customers including Google in the
, the Shanxi Mapping Bureau in
and the Chilean government, the latter as part of a contract including an Astrium-built Earth observation satellite.
Earth observation satellites are becoming less expensive to own and operate, and the volume of data they produce each year is growing so fast that some government agencies have questioned whether it can be properly digested.
In a presentation at company headquarters here Nov. 18, Infoterra France Chief Executive Jean-Michel Darroy said that excluding meteorological satellites and spacecraft reserved for military use, some 44 Earth observation satellites were launched in the last 10 years.
In the next 10 years, he said, some 100 satellites are planned. These 100 satellites can be expected to produce usable maps of several billion square kilometers per year, with data volume measured in thousands of terabytes.
And it is not just satellites contributing to the tidal wave of data. Darroy said the first digital camera designed for use aboard aircraft was introduced in 2002, but now there are
operation worldwide. Together they image tens of millions of square kilometers per year and add several thousand terabytes of data waiting to be processed.
Despite its pedigree as a division of a company that builds satellites and through Infoterra
and Spot Image of France also markets satellite data, Infoterra
has adapted the Pixel Factory to digest aerial imagery alongside space-based images.
“It is a long habit in this industry that competitors become partners, and partners can become competitors,” Darroy said. “By definition, our product works with all types of sensors. Of course, when we sell a Pixel Factory, it is under a license that specifies how it may be used, and where.”
Unlike supersharp satellite imagery, a Pixel Factory does not carry strict export limits.
In an example of the broadening of its customer base, the company is working on a contract to enter 1940s-era photographs into its system to produce side-by-side comparisons of land use for governments tracking urban sprawl and deforestation.
Dupont, head of sales and marketing at Infoterra
, said the Pixel Factory’s special attribute is its scalability. “What we can provide is a product that can process extremely large volumes of data, for example, for customers doing nationwide mapping projects,” Dupont said. “Alternatively, for smaller projects we can save customers time spent on processing. The Pixel Factory uses one-half the labor and around one-third the time of traditional processing techniques.”
said the fact that Pixel Factories have been sold in
, where low-cost labor is presumably not a problem, is an example of the product’s appeal.
reported revenue of 21.8 million euros in 2008 and expects to reach around 25 million euros in 2008. Darroy said nearly half the revenues were Pixel Factory-related, meaning they include the units themselves plus associated services including training in the use of the processor.
In addition to producing Pixel Factories for other divisions inside Astrium, the company has sold some 15 units commercially, including a sale to Google, which included a transfer of technology and was not limited to a hardware shipment, Darroy said.
“Government customers remain the majority of our business,” Darroy said. “But Web actors such as Google are becoming more and more important to the business and are growing fast as a customer base.”