WTFunding: Space Data (Satellite Imagery)

Hi, I’m Kelly. WTFunding is my new “spare time” project to delve into tech sectors attracting VC funding that pique my curiosity. I like connecting dots between disparate things, it’s also pretty useful.

So what is “space data” and “satellite imagery”?

I derive a lot of pleasure by calling it “space data,” but it is more accurately termed satellite or geospatial imagery, and the analysis thereof. This is all about image data collected by satellites about the Earth’s surface and the software that helps make these images useful to humans.

Step 1: Launch to Orbit

Landsat 8, an Earth Observation satellite operated by NASA

Step 2: Data Collection

Objects on Earth reflect energy from the Sun. This energy is in different “bands,” typically visible, infrared and water vapor. Each object reflects a different amount of energy, giving them a “spectral signature.” “Remote sensing” is how satellites collects these reflections — and just means sensing the energy bands from a remote place (like the Earth’s orbit).

How remote sensing works (no animals were harmed in the making of this image).
The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Step 3: Image Processing & Analysis

This is just where the fun begins! Now the imagery needs to be processed, in what’s novelly called “image processing.” This just means a human uses a computer to work with the images. Having higher spatial resolution and more data doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get more information out of the images — and that’s why image processing is so important.

Satellite imagery of wildfires in Idaho
False color imagery.
Example of how object-based image analysis works.

What are the applications?

There are a bunch of industries that benefit from using satellite-based imagery — particularly for anything in which physical trends over time are needed or they want to see stuff below the Earth’s surface. The number of applications is expanding as imaging capability improves, since higher resolution images provide a more granular view of what’s happening on Earth.

Current Applications

Agriculture

Imagery highlighting irrigation.
Digital elevation model of a construction site.
Imagery highlighting deforestation.
Search for MH370; odd given the number of global recon satellites that it’s still missing.
Imagery optimized to show rare earth elements.
The Deepwater Horizon spill being just a bit more than seepage.

Future Applications

In the next section I’ll talk about some of the challenges that have hindered adoption to date, but if geospatial imagery becomes more widely available and easier to leverage for business and operational intelligence, other industries may become customers in addition to those above.

What’s hindering adoption / progress?

There isn’t necessarily one thing hindering adoption of geospatial imagery and intelligence. It’s a combination of availability, costs, latency, quality and usability. All these issues in conjunction means there’s a barrier for many commercial enterprises to using geospatial data to their advantage.

Obligatory cinemagraph in the name of ‘Murica.

Who cares?

The government has cared a lot for a long time, and I’d have to assume they’d be a little nervous about a bunch of new satellites being sent into orbit that may risk having spy satellites uncovered. But, they would also be able to benefit from innovations, particularly on the software-side, that are spurred by greater commercial adoption. Though based on how homely most government-facing software looks, maybe government analysts would disprove of UI improvements.

Satellite imagery via the CIA of Osama bin Ladin’s compound.

What are the risks?

How a satellite constellation looks

What’s the current scene?

There are not too many startups specifically in the satellite-imagery arena, though there are a few more in the satellite and space category more generally (most notably SpaceX). The ones who are in what I’d call the “geospatial big data” arena are:

  • Aquila Space
  • BlackSky Global
  • CartoDB
  • Descartes Labs
  • Iceye
  • MapBox
  • Planet Labs
  • Orbital Insight
  • Skybox Imaging (acquired by Google)
  • Spire
  • TellusLabs
  • UrtheCast
  • Draper Fisher Jurvetson
  • Earlybird Venture Capital
  • Felicis Ventures
  • Founders Fund
  • Foundry Group
  • Lux Capital
  • Promus Ventures
  • Razors Edge Ventures
  • Rothenberg Ventures
  • RRE Ventures
  • Bentley Systems
  • DigitalEye
  • Esri
  • Exelis
  • Hexagon Geospatial
  • Teradata

Conclusion

Asteroid mining — the not so distant future?

VP of Strategy @Capsule8. “In the information society, nobody thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.”

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