Feb 18, 2014

Satellite Imaging Startups Skybox, Planet Labs Race to Cover Earth

Estimated Article Reading Time: 2 min.

Commercial satellite imaging is dominated by two big players, DigitalGlobe (DGI) and Airbus Defence & Space (AIR:FP) (ADS). Each uses a handful of orbiting satellites to build photo archives and charges such customers as Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), and government agencies for the pictures. Clients can also pay extra for newer images of specific locales. These setups are impressive but don’t quite operate at Internet speed. Most satellite images on Google Maps and Google Earth are one to three years old.

The next step is something more like a Google for Earth: a search engine where people can find satellite photos taken in real or near-real time that answer questions like “How many ships are in the Port of Houston today?” or “How much corn is currently growing in Iowa?” That would be of real value to oil exploration companies, day traders, and others with the tools to analyze the data. To pull this off, a company would need to build a network of satellites dense enough to capture a picture of the whole earth, sort of like a scanner encircling the planet. Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs are the two startups closing in on that business, capitalizing on improvements in electronics and computing that allow them to make their compact, powerful satellites reliable and relatively cheap.

Instead of a few of the truck-size, nine-figure satellites the big companies use, the startups are building dozens of satellites that cost from hundreds of thousands to a few million dollars each.
bq. You want to get the day-in and day-out trends,” says Dan Berkenstock, co-founder and chief product officer of Skybox. “We want to give corporations the same capabilities that traditionally only governments have had.

Skybox’s buildings in Mountain View, Calif., include a workshop where its mini fridge-size satellites are built from scratch, with machines for bending the metal and ovens to test the electronics’ heat resistance. In another room, dozens of software engineers work on code to run and track the satellites. There’s even a mission control area, where rows of Macs sit in front of large screens to monitor launches. Like Planet Labs, Skybox hitches rides on rockets with its satellites designated as secondary payloads, at a cost ranging from about $300,000 to $4 million per satellite.

Five-year-old Skybox has raised $91 million in funding. Berkenstock says the company has close to 10 paying customers that use his service to monitor borders, commodity shipments, and power plant exhaust. Online mapping companies such as Google are expected to start using Skybox images for parts of their services soon.

The Planet Labs headquarters, in an office building in the heart of San Francisco, feels more like a mix of chaotic college dorm rooms and a tinker’s garage. The three co-founders, who used to make tiny satellites called CubeSats at the nearby NASA Ames Research Center, set up a makeshift cleanroom where workers assemble the hardware. Software developers sit at Ikea tables pushed together in the center of the next room, which lacks land lines and other typical office gear.

Source Business Week
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