Eyes in the sky

Sil­i­con Val­ley star­tups are at the fore­front of a new space race.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By PATRICK MAY

PRE­PARE your­selves for the Great­est Show Not On Earth. Of­fer­ing us all a front-row seat for plan­e­tary im­ages that could make Google Earth seem so last decade, a slew of San Fran­cisco Bay Area star­tups have be­gun launch­ing small, rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive satel­lites into space. They lug pow­er­ful cam­eras that send back pic­tures and video, and those im­ages soon could dra­mat­i­cally change the way we per­ceive our or­bital home.

“It’s to­tally an Earth-ob­ser­va­tion space race out there,” says Stan­ford Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and global ecol­o­gist Greg As­ner. “With the cost of putting a satel­lite into or­bit drop­ping be­cause of cheaper ma­te­ri­als and so many com­pet­ing commercial launch ven­tures, a lot of re­ally cool in­no­va­tion has be­gun to hap­pen.” The pos­si­bil­i­ties are in­trigu­ing. For the first time, Earth­lings will be able to pe­ruse high-res­o­lu­tion satel­lite im­ages of their planet, both pho­to­graphs and videos, prac­ti­cally in near-real time. Then, by us­ing read­ily avail­able on­line map­ping tools to en­hance the vis­ual data, users es­sen­tially could cre­ate sto­ry­lines to show things such as en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion to rain­forests, hu­man and wildlife mi­gra­tion pat­terns, and po­lit­i­cal crises such as the Arab Spring, pretty much as they un­fold.

Two of the most talked-about com­pa­nies in the van­guard of this Bay Area space race – Moun­tain View-based Sky­box Imag­ing and San Fran­cisco-based Planet Labs – have re­cently put up small satel­lites or are on the verge of adding more to their sky-high col­lec­tions.

A third com­pany, Van­cou­ver, Bri­tish Columbia-based UrtheCast, re­cently sent up two pow­er­ful cam­eras to be in­stalled on the out­side of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion by the end of this month.

Other star­tups and in­cu­ba­tors, such as San Fran­cisco’s Lem­nos Labs, have worked with satel­lite pi­o­neers such as San Fran­cisco-based Nanosat­isfi on open-source soft­ware and crowd­fund­ing to har­ness imag­ing tech­nol­ogy in ways never be­fore pos­si­ble.

Frac­tion of the cost

Cen­tred in what in­creas­ingly looks like Satel­lite Val­ley, this pri­vate­ly­funded rush to space is the re­sult of a con­flu­ence of fac­tors, in­clud­ing re­duced costs. A satel­lite that once cost hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to build and launch is now doable for a tiny frac­tion of that. And there’s plenty of money to be made sell­ing satel­lite pho­tos, as well as the data they im­part, to gov­ern­ments, an­a­lyt­i­cal firms and even huge re­tail­ers such as Wal-Mart, who could see things like traf­fic flow in its park­ing lots ev­ery day of the year.

“We’re build­ing our satel­lites right now in Moun­tain View, and it’s sort of a bal­anc­ing act be­tween Sil­i­con Val­ley and aero­space,” says ChingYu Hu, a co-founder of Sky­box, which launched its first satel­lite from Rus­sia in Novem­ber and is now trans­mit­ting what she calls the world’s first high-res­o­lu­tion com- mer­cial video from space.

Hu says that mar­ry­ing to­gether big-data and satel­lite star­tups is a match made in, well, Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Sky­box plans to com­bine its or­bital im­ages with pow­er­ful data­bases, sell­ing ser­vices that could dra­mat­i­cally im­prove global busi­ness ap­pli­ca­tions, from man­ag­ing sup­ply chains to track­ing ship­ping con­tain­ers on the world’s oceans, all on a daily or even hourly ba­sis. For ex­am­ple, satel­lites could mon­i­tor agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­ity, re­plac­ing quar­terly com­mod­ity re­ports on soy­beans with a snapshot of crop pro­duc­tion de­liv­ered within hours of the im­ages be­ing recorded.

“We have as­sets in space, like these other star­tups, but what’s dif­fer­ent is the data we have on the ground,” Hu says. “We’ve got­ten a lot of in­ter­est from people who want to com­bine our im­ages and video with things like drone-pro­duced (data) or even Twit­ter data.”

There’s also a strong drive for democratis­ing space un­der way, as firms such as UrtheCast pledge to of­fer free the same im­ages that un­til re­cently only well-heeled cor­po­rate en­ti­ties could af­ford. Many of the aero­space sci­en­tists be­hind these star­tups want to use satel­lite tech­nol­ogy to help save the Earth, doc­u­ment­ing trou­bling trends such as melt­ing ice caps and coastal ero­sion in the hopes they can be reme­died.

Plan­e­tary per­spec­tive

See­ing our­selves from space in more de­tail also will pro­foundly change the way we per­ceive the planet, says Steve Jurvet­son, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Draper Fisher Jurvet­son and a mem­ber of Planet Lab’s board of di­rec­tors. That iconic “blue mar­ble” pho­to­graph of Earth taken in 1972 from Apollo 17, he says, sparked “an epiphany that made us all re­alise the frag­ile life- boat we live on. Now, nanosatel­lites and the daily ac­cess to im­agery of the planet will cre­ate a zeit­geist im­pact as we see our­selves as truly global cit­i­zens.”

UrtheCast plans to use its cam­eras, which are about the size of large soda bot­tles, to beam back high-qual­ity pic­tures and video that the com­pany will share for free on its web­site while mak­ing money on part­ner­ships with me­dia com­pa­nies and global re­tail­ers.

“We’ll have a high-def­i­ni­tion video cam­era up there, sim­i­lar to a te­le­scope but pointed to­ward Earth,” says Dan Lopez, who’s build­ing a con­sumer-ori­ented web plat­form at UrtheCast’s San Fran­cisco of­fice. “We’ll be able to move it around to fol­low a tar­get or track dif­fer­ent ar­eas on the ground as we fly over.”

Those im­ages, he says, can then be in­te­grated into maps with lay­ers of data from other sources, “so we’ll be able to see for the first time things like chang­ing veg­e­ta­tion pat­terns on the planet.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, con­cerns about pri­vacy have been raised.

“While I’m glad there are govern­ment reg­u­la­tions in place that re­strict things like res­o­lu­tion of these im­ages, the po­ten­tial for pri­vacy abuses is still sig­nif­i­cant,” says Beth Givens, di­rec­tor of the San Diego-based Pri­vacy Rights Clear­ing­house. “Who’s watch­ing the watch­ers? And what’s the ac­count­abil­ity mech­a­nism in place? Sounds a bit like the Wild West to me.”

Yet even as these new tech­nolo­gies en­able pri­vate com­pa­nies to zoom down close enough to see build­ings and crowds of people, the satel­lite en­trepreneurs say the pub­lic should not worry.

“We take pri­vacy very, very se­ri­ously,” says Sky­box’s Hu. “Our cam­era’s res­o­lu­tion is such that we can’t see in­di­vid­ual faces. We can tell a car from a truck, but we can’t see people and we can’t see which car be­longs to which per­son.” – San Jose Mer­cury News / McClatchy-Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

Con­sumer-ori­ented: dan Lopez, di­rec­tor of Sta­tion. – MCT/dai Sugano

urtheCast’s San

Me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer alexan­der Wen work­ing on a satel­lite cam­era called dove at Planet Labs, a pri­vately-funded com­pany in San Fran­cisco. dozens of the small bread­box-sized de­vices were sent to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion for even­tual de­ploy­ment. – MCT/Karl Mon­don

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