Oct 13, 2020 - Science

Earth-watching satellites come of age

Illustration of a satellite flanked by hundred dollar bills for solar panels
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Constellations of Earth-gazing satellites are giving new and growing markets an unprecedented view — and understanding — of the planet.

Why it matters: The Earth observation market was once focused on collecting huge amounts of raw data, but companies are now working to pull in revenue by creating tools to analyze that information for customers.

  • "Overall, there's just a broader understanding of the value of the data ... demand is rising across the board," Krystal Azelton, of the Secure World Foundation, tells me.

What's happening: New companies are launching satellites that can take cloud-piercing radar images of Earth by night and day, while other satellites are able to collect non-imagery signals data like radio-frequency emissions, opening up applications like tracking illegal fishing in new ways.

  • Companies like BlackSky and others are offering their own data analysis tools that allow companies and government agencies to track things like deforestation, explosions, natural disasters and other points of interest.
  • Planet’s Fusion Monitoring tool, announced today, is designed to not only use the company’s own data but also pull in space data from Landsat, VIIRS and others to make a more rich and easily analyzed database for its customers, in particular the agriculture industry.
  • Iceye, India's Pixxel and others that are both collecting and analyzing data have raised millions of dollars in the past year.

The big picture: The market for Earth observation data and analysis — which was worth a little over $3 billion in 2019 — is predicted to reach $8.1 billion by 2029, according to a new report from Northern Sky Research.

  • That's an increase from predictions put out by the company just last year.

Between the lines: The coronavirus pandemic may be helping to accelerate the growth of the industry.

  • "In some areas, we're actually seeing an increase in Earth observation procurement. In a way it makes sense; you're all forced to work remotely," Northern Sky Research's Dallas Kasaboski tells me. "Now we're going to rely more on remote sensing and remote imagery, intelligence."
  • BlackSky developed a coronavirus dashboard that uses AI to analyze news stories and other information to then task satellites to take images of points of interest on Earth, like empty airports.
  • Earth observation data has also been used to track the effects of the pandemic, with photos of empty parking lots, roads and drops in greenhouse gas emissions seen from orbit.

What to watch: Many companies are aiming to beam back photos from orbit using constellations of small satellites, potentially flooding the market with data and increasing competition, Kasaboski says.

Yes, but: Satellite data collection and analysis lacks standardization of price and structure, Kasaboski says. Many different companies are offering somewhat similar services at different price points.

  • Despite the new markets, the Earth observation industry still largely serves government, not commercial industry, so the next phase of growth may need to focus on courting new markets.
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