PlanetScope near infrared imagery of the Braided River in eastern Russia's Chukotka Autonomous Okrug. Credit: Planet

SAN FRANCISCO – For years, consumers of Earth-observation data lamented the time required to task satellites to collect imagery of a specific site.

The lag between image order and delivery was typically measured in days and only achieved through lengthy phone conversations. That’s no longer the case.

“You don’t have to call anybody on the phone anymore,” said Emiliano Kargieman, Satellogic founder and CEO. “If you have the credentials to our system, you can just log in and book orders directly into an API.”

BlackSky Technology announced plans July 12 to offer tasking through a new cloud-based application that allows BlackSky customers to order imagery through Esri’s ArcGIS Online cloud-based mapping platform.

“By clicking a button that pops up in an ArcGIS app, users can task an area of interest,” said Beau Legeer, Esri imagery and remote sensing director. “When the tasking is done, that data comes down into a user’s ArcGIS Online” account.

“It gives the ArcGIS users options that they never had before to derive important GIS information,” Legeer added. “What’s changing? What’s growing? What’s the impact of some human event or some natural disaster?”

Tasking Tools

BlackSky is not alone in reimagining satellite tasking. Earth observation startups and established firms have worked for years to streamline the process.

Capella Space offers customers access to an automated scheduler through an API or through the Capella Console web portal. Customers can select a location for tasking. An automatic scheduler determines which of Capella’s seven synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites in low Earth orbit is in the best position to fulfill the order.

The order is then transmitted to the satellite through Inmarsat’s communications constellation in geostationary orbit. Imagery collected is downlinked during the satellite’s next pass over a ground station.

“Once it hits the ground, with no human in the loop, it gets processed and it shows up either through the API or through the Console, depending on how it was ordered,” said Payam Banazadeh, Capella founder and CEO.

Iceye also is rolling out an API and a web portal to allow customers to input tasking requirements for the Finnish company’s SAR constellation.

Still, some customers benefit from conversations about tasking because of the many variables involved.

“The traditional way of purchasing imagery by phone allows you to package fuzzy logic into the conversation,” said Iceye co-founder Pekka Laurila. “Whereas the API doesn’t.”

Say a customer wants to monitor certain sites every five hours and other sites every 30 hours. What type of leeway will the customer accept, plus or minus five hours? Does the customer need data acquired from the same geometric angle every time to perform a specific type of change monitoring?

“How I want to establish my monitoring comes down to a relatively large number of variables,” Laurila said. “Generally speaking, it is a control that we want to give to the user. Of course, it also needs a degree of education in the market.”

Expanding Market

Early adopters of commercial SAR data tend to be governments or large enterprises with extensive remote sensing expertise and employees adept at tasking satellite. As the commercial imagery market expands, companies that operate SAR and electro-optical satellites are striving to make tasking easy for new customers as well.

“Some customers have one task and that’s all they need to do,” said Jim Thomason, Planet vice president of imagery products and analytics. “Some customers have hundreds of tasks a day that they need to enter into our system. Obviously, we need to provide tools for both of those customers.”

A customer submitting a single task to Planet’s constellation of 21 SkySats can access a web-based graphical interface. By dropping a pin on a map, the customer can identify the tasking location and select parameters for the order like viewing angles or time constraints. Someone who begins the process in ArcGIS or QGIS can follow a hyperlink to complete the process through Planet’s Dashboard.

“It can really be that easy and intuitive for users that aren’t necessarily experts in orbital dynamics and ways to task satellite,” Thomason said.

At the same time, Planet offers a suite of tasking tools for Earth-imagery veterans.

“They can enter different angles that they want to capture,” Thomason said. “If they want stereo or points or areas or strips, all of this is available graphically or programmatically, if they like to write code.”

Satellogic also employs two mechanisms for tasking the Argentine company’s 26-satellite constellation. Satellogic unveiled its tasking platform Aleph earlier this year.

“We’re trying to make this as seamless and as easy as possible,” Kargieman said. “We need to empower a large number of new people to use Earth observation that never used it in the past. Part of that is making pricing transparent and making capacity transparent so people know when to expect data.”

Making tasking simple allows customers to focus on “using the data to deliver solutions internally to companies and governments, and also to develop value-added services,” Kargieman said.

More sophisticated Satellogic customers can place tasking orders through an API.

“You can simulate different orders, see what it would cost to satisfy them and pick what’s best for you,” Kargieman said.

Industry Giants

Airbus Defence and Space and Maxar Technologies, two companies that have operated Earth-observation satellites for decades, also have updated satellite tasking.

In early June, Airbus unveiled an API that allows customers to task the aerospace giant’s radar satellites and gain access to the 15-year archive through Airbus’ OneAtlas platform. In late June, Airbus added access to WorldDEM, a suite of digital elevation models derived from radar data.

“We are the only satellite imagery provider to allow, through a unique platform, online tasking of both optical and radar constellations, easy access to archive imagery as well as elevation data,” François Lombard, Airbus Defence and Space Intelligence director, said in a statement.  “OneAtlas already provides access to optical satellite data from the Airbus Constellation, including Pléiades Neo, and we continue to push the boundaries in terms of what data access looks like.”

Since 2018, Maxar has offered tasking through the Rapid Access Program, a multi-year subscription service that relies on Maxar’s ground station network. Maxar’s Direct Access Program is a subscription program that provides direct satellite tasking for customers with their own ground stations.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...