Satellite-based Earth observation involves using satellite imagery to gather and interpreting information about the Earth’s surface in as much detail as possible. The Holy Grail here would be a real-time high resolution video feed available for any given point on the Earth’s surface, which could have a revolutionary impact on an astonishingly wide range of industries. Potential applications range from verifying insurance claims after natural disasters to searching for missing airplanes within minutes of their reported disappearance.

Unfortunately, while traditional satellites provide the resolution (DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 can distinguish between objects that are 0.46 meters apart!) they can typically only revisit a location once every couple of days, so their main commercial use is for mapping services like Google Maps. The coverage problem could be improved by using ‘constellations’ of satellites all linked into a network, but this is prohibitively expensive; SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can deliver payloads to Low Earth Orbit at a cost of roughly $4000/kg, which translates into a bill of $672 million dollars for 60 satellites of the same size as WorldView-2.

Enter the micro-satellite, which are small satellites typically with a mass of up to 100kg. The most well-known design is the CubeSat (a 10cm cube weighing less than 1.33kg), developed by Professor Bob Twiggs of Stanford University as an open-source standard. Ready-made CubeSat kits are commercially available at around $8000, with launch costs estimated at roughly $40,000. This is obviously a significant price reduction compared to traditional satellites, but there is a trade-off in terms of image quality. Most companies are currently aiming for micro-satellite constellations that will have a resolution of a couple of meters – enough to identify separate cars on the road, but not enough to read the licence plate.

This may not be the case for long though. The other significant feature of micro-satellites is that their low cost allows for increased innovation; whereas traditional satellites are too expensive to take any risks with the design, manufacturers of micro-satellites can try many different iterations relatively inexpensively. Some companies, like Seattle-based start-up BlackSky Global, have even factored this innovation into their future strategy, deliberately designing satellites with a life span of 3 years to make room for the next generation of technology.

As it stands, most of the companies in this space are aiming to have a constellation up and running by the end of this decade, resulting in images of anywhere on Earth that will be updated multiple times a day. Their business model will then revolve around providing access to this image data to other companies. The exact details of how the data will be provided are yet to be ironed out – in 2011 RapidEye declared bankruptcy after attempting to sell raw image data to farmers directly, suggesting that processing and analysis may have to be bundled as part of the final product.

More recently innovators have met with better fortunes; in 2014 SkyBox Imaging were acquired by Google for $500 million, while Spire claims that they already have several commercial contracts secured for their 2017 weather forecasting constellation. Many take confidence in the fact that the proliferation of Earth observation technologies will be a significant step forward in the trend towards the privatisation of space, with startups such as GeoOptics of the opinion that their success will be mainly due to commercial clients, rather than dependent on large contracts with the US government.

The timeline for launching most of the constellations that we’ve come across here at VentureRadar seems to be within the next five years, so it may not be long before a whole new range of innovative services start appearing in daily life, driven by easily available earth observation data. While the first generation of constellations won’t be able to provide real time video just yet, it can only be a matter of time.

Image courtesy of NASA