Microsatellites, Rapid Imaging, and Usage in the Field

24 April 2014 by Coleman McCormick

This year’s GEOINT Symposium brought to Tampa dozens of companies doing new and innovative things in geospatial, along with many of the big players in the community. One of the biggest splashes of new technology that’s likely to shake up the commercial imagery market is the growth of “micro satellites” as both a real, available platform for remote sensing, and a potentially massive new market that could expand the uses for commercial satellite imagery into new sectors.

wildfire imagery

Imagery has always been expensive to purchase no matter the vintage, and current “tasked” imagery is essentially unobtainable by any small company or municipality. For most smaller organizations to get timely photography for mapping purposes, they’re usually left to rely on flying aerial imagery, or hoping that the archive of cost-effective space-based imagery happens to be current enough (which can be a stretch for those in cloud-heavy areas). The reason for the high cost is obvious: the launch and maintenance of these large sensor platforms costs hundreds of millions, which restricts the number of them in orbit at a time. And because there are so few in space, it’s not hard to figure out why on-demand tasking of imagery would be so costly, or impossible.

There’s a new wave of micro satellite technology incoming, though, that promises to provide a new capability to organizations once left unable to make use of current imagery on a regular basis. Low-cost individual platforms have recast the model of space-based sensing that we’ve had for years. Instead of a dozen varying platforms with thousands of people competing for their time, companies like Skybox and Planet Labs are each planning to launch their own constellations of over two dozen satellites within the next year. They’ll be able to scan the Earth at unprecedented rates, and since the satellites are so small, new ones can be added to the constellations more frequently. Traditional satellite platforms are so large, complex, and expensive that by the time they’re out of the design/build phase and in flight, the hardware is old. Micro satellites won’t kill off the traditional platforms (we’ll still have need for that high-grade data), but my excitement is about the new uses for imagery in applications where it was never used before. And the stuff already being done with video is mind blowing.

Many of our customers for Fulcrum are in the field every day, using mobile smartphones to collect GIS data and manage their mobile workforces, and most of them rely on base map data to cross reference their location on the ground for accurate geolocation. The uses for imagery in field scenarios are endless, but until now, high costs have made it untenable for these types of applications. There are myriad examples of where geospatial data and imagery intersect with the need for mobile data collection tools, many of them not traditionally associated with mapping:

  • Construction companies can conduct phase inspections of projects with mobile survey forms and yesterday’s imagery of a large construction project area
  • Insurance carriers could use imagery to see before and after views post-storm when performing assessments for claims
  • Small municipal agencies with limited budgets can afford high quality, current imagery for urban planning field mapping and asset inventory
  • Farms could buy their own up-to-date pictures of their property and use it in the field when collecting info on crop yields, observed problems, or invasive pests
  • Disaster response outfits could have day-by-day imagery on their mobile phones when capturing needs assessment data, or images of areas in crisis for human rights monitoring

It doesn’t take much imagination to dream up scenarios that have traditionally been unable to make frequent use of satellite imagery. The cross section of the need for workforce mobility and real-time information in the commercial and government spaces is only expanding, and this type of technology is making it attainable.

I’m also thinking about how affordable, current imagery can be combined with the our capabilities for high fidelity information from the ground in interesting ways. Being able to go from space-based pictures of a place like a port facility or shopping mall in the morning, to having eyes on the ground in the same afternoon verifying, corroborating, or disputing what looks to be obvious from imagery will be indispensable, particularly given the low cost and large scale at which it’ll be possible. With so much of our daily information consumption being in real time, geospatial data hasn’t yet reached that level for every day purposes. But it’s getting close, and that’s exciting.

Photo: NASA GSFC

Coleman McCormick

About the author

Coleman is a geographer and VP at Spatial Networks, working with users to bring Fulcrum’s field data capability into their organizations.