Feb 23, 2015

The Promise of Big Earth Data: Spacetech Takes a Page From Cleantech’s Playbook

Estimated Article Reading Time: 3 min.

Two weeks ago, the DSCOVR satellite, envisioned by Al Gore back in 1998, hitched a ride on one of Elon Musk’s reusable rockets. The goal: send high-resolution imagery and big data back to Earth to monitor climate change.

If you’re surprised to see two of cleantech’s most influential proponents aligning to blaze a path to space, you shouldn’t be. There is an accelerating race to build infrastructure in outer space — beginning with an immense network of satellites designed to gather new data about the risks of climate change.

Like cleantech, once dismissed as a high-risk, capital-intensive industry, the spacetech industry is in the midst of a renaissance. Dubbed “Earth observation,” this new sector relies on new innovations in very small satellites (cubesats), imagery, sonar and radar to dramatically improve our access to big data about the Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems.

Fleets or “constellations” of cubesats, typically the size of a 4-inch cube weighing about 2 lbs, carry these advanced remote sensing technologies into space at a fraction of what a traditional launch costs. And they are already beaming down incredible data with tangible ROI opportunities.

We’ve already seen how big energy data has enabled a wide range of new business models to drive down energy consumption and greenhouse gases in the built environment. For big earth data, the applications reach even further.

More precise and frequent information about water usage, land resources, moisture and mineral content in soil, transportation patterns, species relocation and weather forecasting are having the same impact on sectors traditionally viewed through the cleantech lens: from water and carbon to energy and agribusiness.

Farmers, equipped with emerging earth data about soil, water and weather, are engaging in what’s now being called “precision agriculture,” improving crop yields to meet the food demands of a projected 9 billion people. Renewable energy developers are increasingly relying on GIS to make siting decisions for wind turbines, solar projects, geothermal plants or biomass facilities. And city agencies tasked with water and carbon management can now actively manage these resources with new tools based on big earth data.

That potential has attracted a growing roster of former cleantech investors in space. From Elon Musk to DFJ’s Steve Jurveston to Google, investors have started snapping up some of the most promising earth observation companies.

Many point to Monsanto’s $930 million acquisition of Climate Corp. in 2013 as the beginning of the investment boom in earth observation. Climate Corp used GIS-based weather data to create hyperlocal forecasts, which it then used to price and sell insurance products to farmers. Climate Corp. became the first billion-dollar acquisition in earth observation, signaling a boom in what Monsanto called the $20 billion data sciences market.

In 2014, Google made its strategic bid for Skybox Imaging. The $500 million deal put Skybox on the map, promising Google a fleet of 24 satellites in space by 2016 that would image the earth three times a day. San Francisco-based PlanetLabs, a DFJ company, raised $95 million in January 2015 to launch its fleet of cubesats into space, and PlanetIQ, based in Bethesda, Maryland, is in the process of designing its own constellation of 12 to 18 cubesats to commercialize weather forecasting to manage financial risk to assets.

After decades of being under NASA’s control, spacetech is thriving thanks to a new breed of private companies aiming to address a wide range of earth’s ailments. The growth in spacetech mirrors the last decade of clean energy expansion — updating, retrofitting and innovating a new world infrastructure. Let’s see what the next wave brings.

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Caroline Venza is the CEO of MissionCTRL Communications (MC2), a strategic communications consultancy at the intersection of energy, finance, materials and mobility.

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