Satellite imagery is not yet flowing like water from a tap

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SAN FRANCISCO – Companies are collecting more Earth imagery from satellites than ever before, but for some customers the data remains too expensive and too difficult to consume.

That was the consensus from a panel of Earth-observation experts speaking Feb. 8 at the virtual SmallSat Symposium.

Satellogic, for example, wants to turn satellite data into an information utility that like electricity or water is simple to use, reliable and affordable, said Emilano Kargieman, founder and CEO of the Argentine company that launched 12 satellites in 2020.

Rafal Modrzewski, Iceye founder and CEO, said that analogy may work at some point in the future when far more Earth-observation imagery and data is available and customer demand grows.

For now, customers do not have an imagery pipeline available. As a result, Iceye needs to task synthetic aperture radar satellites to satisfy the data demands of customers. Once there are more satellites and more data applications, the cost of imagery and data will decline because companies will be able to sell imagery of the same site to multiple customers.

“Let’s assume that you image 1,000 sites around the world and you can detect change on those sites all the time,” Modrzewski said. Once that happens, users will be able to “turn on and turn off the tap, which means that getting access to the collection stack whenever they’re interested and choosing to stop access to the collection whenever they’re not interested.”

Since that data pipeline does not yet exist, geospatial analytics companies price imagery differently based on its value to the customer.

“If you’re trying to count cars at every U.S. retail location, you’re going to need hundreds of thousands to millions of images,” said James Crawford, Orbital Insight CEO and founder. The data’s value depends on how much it helps stock traders.

In contrast, a company may have an important reason to observe a liquid natural gas facility. One image of the facility may be worth $1 million, Crawford said. “We’re essentially creating a supply chain that needs to price imagery very differently based on the use cases and the value to the end customer,” he added.

In addition to thinking about pricing, geospatial analytics companies are combining data into products that are easy for customers to consume.

“How do you take data from an Iceye satellite combine it with data from a Spire satellite and get an interesting result that gives your customer the answer they’re looking for,” asked Adam Maher, Ursa Space president and founder.

In some cases, obtaining that data requires access to various data sources from vendors around the world, said Nina Soleng, KSAT communications head.

“That’s a challenge, especially when the customer is dependent on different sensors to get that whole picture,” Soleng said. “All the different providers have different licensing agreements and regulations. We’re handling that on the customer’s behalf.”