Dis­patches from space

A boom­ing satel­lite in­dus­try is chang­ing the way we do busi­ness down be­low.

Fast Company - - Contents - By Kim Light­body

Five ways satel­lites are chang­ing how we do busi­ness down be­low.

Satel­lite com­pa­nies are send­ing more cam­eras into or­bit than ever be­fore, pro­vid­ing an un­prece­dented near-real-time view of the world. Here are five sec­tors on the ground that are be­ing trans­formed by data from the sky.


An­a­lyt­ics com­pa­nies such as Or­bital In­sight use satel­lite im­agery to es­ti­mate an­nual crop yields for farm­ers. North Carolina– based Farmshots digs even deeper: By study­ing light ab­sorp­tion and land el­e­va­tion, it can scour in­di­vid­ual fields for the pres­ence of pests or dis­eases. And through a re­cent part­ner­ship with John Deere, Farmshots’ recog­ni­tion al­go­rithms have been built into trac­tors and other equip­ment, so that data gleaned from satel­lite im­agery can di­rect ma­chines to fields that are in need of ad­di­tional fer­til­izer.


Re­mote stretches of wa­ter aren’t of­ten cov­ered by satel­lites or sig­nal tow­ers, al­low­ing ships with black­mar­ket goods to slip by un­no­ticed. Spire’s satel­lites tar­get these blind spots, scan­ning for il­licit trad­ing ac­tiv­ity in the Arc­tic and piracy in the In­dian Ocean. The com­pany is also help­ing the In­done­sian gov­ern­ment cut down on il­le­gal fish­ing ac­tiv­ity by an­a­lyz­ing ships’ pat­terns at sea and flag­ging sus­pi­cious ves­sels.

Emer­gency re­sponse

In dis­as­ter zones, satel­lite im­agery helps gov­ern­ments and aid or­ga­ni­za­tions as­sess dam­age and di­rect relief ef­forts. A com­pany called Planet uses data from its nearly 150 satel­lites to cre­ate maps that jux­ta­pose images of an af­fected area be­fore and im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing a dis­as­ter. Af­ter a hur­ri­cane hit Haiti last fall, work­ers used the maps to iden­tify roads that were blocked and im­por­tant build­ings, such as schools and hos­pi­tals, that sus­tained dam­age.

En­vi­ron­men­tal re­search

Satel­lites can be used to track the pro­gres­sion of global warm­ing in ar­eas where ac­cess was once limited. Or­bital In­sight works with the World Re­sources In­sti­tute to mon­i­tor de­for­esta­tion by look­ing for new roads be­ing built in un­de­vel­oped ar­eas. In April, Planet of­fered its images of im­por­tant eco­log­i­cal zones to any­one with a univer­sity af­fil­i­a­tion; re­searchers from across the world have used the plat­form to an­a­lyze ev­ery­thing from glacier melt in Green­land to veg­e­ta­tion loss in In­dia.

Na­tional se­cu­rity

The U.S. gov­ern­ment uses satel­lites for more than just keep­ing an eye on North Korea. The De­fense De­part­ment re­cently granted im­age anal­y­sis com­pany Descartes Labs $1.5 mil­lion to study food se­cu­rity in the Mid­dle East and North Africa. Descartes is us­ing the funds to scan farm­land— both large-scale op­er­a­tions and smaller fields in ru­ral ar­eas—for early signs of famine, which can pre­cede so­ciopo­lit­i­cal con­flict. “If we see a short­age,” says co­founder and CEO Mark John­son, “we can send in hu­man­i­tar­ian re­sources rather than wait­ing for famine and the un­rest that of­ten oc­curs af­ter.”

Eye in the sky A satel­lite from Planet cap­tured a fire burn­ing through one of the cir­cu­lar crop fields in the Toshka area of Egypt last year.

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