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Small, low-cost satellites capture high-res Earth photos

Posted: 18 Sep 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Planet Labs  satellite  Earth  big data 

Most satellite imagery is weeks or months old. As such, Planet Labs CEO Will Marshall aims to give researchers, scientists, farmers, traders and any other interested parties access to real-time data about planet Earth by bringing the earth's surface data into frequent update mode, daily.

Marshall, a former NASA scientist, and his team plan to get a fleet of 150 of his firm's Doves, miniature, camera-bearing satellites, into orbit sometime next year, more satellites than all the other launchers combined. So far, the company has launched 100 of them.

"We are getting to the point where we can image the entire earth in a day," said the young, bespectacled CEO, who looked like he was only a few years out of graduate school.

Most image-collecting satellites are like Landsat 8, a monstrous box of cameras, gyro-compasses, transmitters and other equipment weighing 5,783 pounds. Landsat 8 was launched by the US National Geological Survey two years ago as part of a long line of Landsats.

A Planet Labs Dove, on the other hand, is about the size of a shoebox, weighs 8.8 pounds, and still contains the high-resolution cameras and other equipment that Landsat has, except in miniature.

At Dreamforce, Marshall talked about how a revolution in lower-cost satellites and satellite imagery will change how we capture changes in the earth's surface, agricultural data, and other business information. Doves are "hundreds of thousands times cheaper" than $750 million Landsats and earlier generations of satellites, he said. He showed pictures of the first Dove being hand-assembled in a garage. They're now assembled in the basement of Planet Labs' San Francisco headquarters.

With cloud computing, high-volume storage and cheap satellite imagery, many people are going to have access to data on how a specific surface area is changing, of "a connected, big data, transparent planet," he said at Dreamforce. It may even change how we view the planet, he suggested.

Are global ice caps shrinking? Planet Labs will make it common knowledge. Are soybean crops in trouble around the world? Commodities traders may be among the first to know. Rainfall, weather patterns at sea, and forest-fire movements may all become imagery information available at a person's fingertips. After the Nepal earthquake in April, Planet Labs imagery showed rescue workers the location of two mountain villages that they didn't know existed. A good day's work, as far as Marshall was concerned.

Planet Labs has $183 million in venture capital to finance its satellite network, as well as several paying customers, including agribusiness firm Wilbur-Ellis.

Dove launch

Dove launch in August. (Image: NASA and JAXA, via Planet Labs blog)

Planet Labs will ask just about anyone going into space to take a Dove or several Doves along for launch once they get there. "We asked the astronauts to toss them out the window" from the International Space Station, Marshall quipped. Two were launched that way, and he showed video of that happening at his Dreamforce session.

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