Apr 14, 2014

The Commoditization of the Earth Observation Satellite Business

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The GEOINT Symposium today kicked off with visionary sessions called “GEOINT Forward.”

In a session on “SmallSat Remote Sensing Innovations” two startup company executives, Anne Hale Miglarese president and CEO of PlanetiQ and Robbie Schingler co-founder of Planet Labs shared how satellite technology is changing business models for earth observation.

PlanetiQ is a company that is planning a constellation of 12 to 24 satellites for weather and climate modeling. The business opportunity is that NOAA weather satellites are aging and PlanetiQ is trying to fill the void. Planet Labs is planning a large constellation of earth imaging cubesats (~10 lbs or 5 kg) in low earth orbit (400 km) with 3-5 meter spatial resolution. Planet Labs wants to eventually launch 28 cubsats from the International Space Station with the possibility of launching an additional 72 satellites.

Miglarese said that the weather satellite data business is following a similar path of commercialization as that of earth observation imagery. That is, government over the course of many years, has funded and launched weather satellites but with declining budgets, there is a need to fill the demand with commercial satellites that can be built cheaper and faster.

Schingler calls this ability to rapidly innovate with shorter time to market “agile aerospace.” He said that it’s getting cheaper to build spacecraft because of investments in other consumer electronics that he is able to leverage in building earth observation sensors. Planet Labs’ commercial platforms are being built for “persistent global monitoring” where this is an “always on” constellation of satellites that can be infinitely tasked. Schingler’s idea is to develop a “see before you pay data licensing model” that is able to serve multiple simultaneous users.

Schingler also believes that smallsats can disrupt the “vicious cycle of aerospace” where the are very long lead times from concept to launch. He commented that the “space business is in the IT business and will be all about software. He added that smallsats could become commoditized in a production industry. “We are at the beginning of a space renaissance with private investment driving commercial needs.