Seattle-based Spaceflight successfully launched its first digital imagery satellite into orbit — and plans to roll out this fall a new data platform for accessing images from its own satellite constellation and those of other companies. It may run into intense competition.
A week ago, the first satellite for the BlackSky digital imagery project successfully launched into orbit on top of an Indian government rocket.
Jason Andrews, CEO of BlackSky parent company Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, hailed it as an important step in a “geospatial revolution” and hinted that the company will soon extend its reach in satellite imagery.
That first satellite is now circling the planet every 90 minutes and covering the earth in the course of a day, a demonstrator for the planned 60-satellite BlackSky constellation. The goal of the project is to enable anyone on earth to order up customized satellite photos in near real time for a price approaching $90 each.
Yet Andrews said BlackSky’s ambition goes beyond launching its own satellites. It aims to build a platform that will enable easy access to images of anywhere on earth from both its own satellites and those operated by other companies.
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He said BlackSky acquired the platform to do that last spring when it bought Herndon, Va.-based cloud computing company OpenWhere.
BlackSky is now developing this platform to “integrate not only our data but other people’s geospatial data.”
While declining to name the prospective partners, Andrews said Spaceflight has been working with “several other commercial operators that operate one or two satellites around the planet” and will make an announcement this fall.
It’s a field where keen competition is emerging
Deep-pocketed Airbus and Google each have their own satellite-based digital imaging subsidiaries. And there are a plethora of startup companies, many with Silicon Valley funding — including Planet, Digital Globe and Earthcast — selling such imagery.
All are fueled by the same digital paradigm shift: A decade ago, the use of paper maps gave way to digital maps from Google. Yet those are still static images. The next step, said Andrews, is to be able to access images of the earth as it changes over time.
Small-scale satellites costing about $5 million each could deliver images at a resolution not far short of Google Earth quality and provide fresh images of the same area on an hourly basis if needed.
Such imagery could potentially reveal how many cars Tesla produced last week or the shifting impact of flooding in Louisiana.
The concept has spurred rapid growth in this sector, said Adam Bruckner, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington.
“There’s going to be intense competition for this imagery,” said Bruckner. “So many of these new companies are popping up left and right, it’s hard to know how solid they are and when they’ll start getting a return on their investment.”
And he points out that another form of competition has recently emerged: camera-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are now proliferating by the thousands.
“Those drones will be able to fly over almost any part of the earth and take pictures with higher resolution than the satellite images,” said Bruckner. “And they are very flexible. They are not stuck in a particular orbit.”
Andrews insists there’s plenty of room for competition.
Even as he proceeds with the plan to launch his own satellite constellation, he’ll be trying to sign up more partners for his shared imagery database.