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Culture and technology
16 July 2013

Look up and smile, the eyes in the sky are multiplying

By now we’re all familiar with satellite images of our planet. Indeed, thanks to sites like Google Earth, we can all see our own homes from above and, more importantly, those of our neighbours too.

But though the enabling technology is now decades old, you may be surprised by just how limited its current application is. The following from David Samuels in Wired is a real eye-opener:

  • “Of the 1,000 or more satellites orbiting the planet at any given time, there are perhaps 100 that send back visual data. Only 12 of those send back high-resolution pictures… and only nine of the 12 sell into the commercial space-based imaging market, currently estimated at $2.3 billion a year. Worse still, some 80 percent of that market is controlled by the US government, which maintains priority over all other buyers… Due to the paucity of satellites and to the government’s claim on their operations, ordering an image of a specific place on Earth can take days, weeks, even months.”

This may well be about to change, with a new venture that promises a massive increase in the supply of satellite imaging:

  • “Here is the soaring vision that Skybox’s founders have sold the Valley: that kids from Stanford, using inexpensive consumer hardware, can ring Earth with constellations of imaging satellites that are dramatically cheaper to build and maintain than the models currently aloft. By blanketing the exosphere with its cameras, Skybox will quickly shake up the stodgy business (estimated to grow to $4 billion a year by 2018) of commercial space imaging. Even with six small satellites orbiting Earth, Skybox could provide practically real-time images of the same spot twice a day at a fraction of the current cost.”

But to what practical effect?

  • “Many of the most economically and environmentally significant actions that individuals and businesses carry out every day, from shipping goods to shopping at big-box retail outlets to cutting down trees to turning out our lights at night, register in one way or another on images taken from space. So, while Big Data companies scour the Internet and transaction records and other online sources to glean insight into consumer behavior and economic production around the world, an almost entirely untapped source of data—information that companies and governments sometimes try to keep secret—is hanging in the air right above us…”

Samuels describes this information as “digital gold dust, containing clues about the economic health of countries, industries, and individual businesses.” But if such data is so valuable and so easy to get hold of, then why haven’t the government agencies that control the output from the existing satellites done more to commercialise it?

One explanation is that it is not in the nature of government organisations to seize commercial opportunities. After all, why would a national space agency like NASA make its own money, when it just gets given it by the state? The other explanation is that a detailed, real-time view of our planet is something that governments would rather keep to themselves:

  • “The disruptive threat that Skybox poses to the space-based commercial imaging market might also annoy some powerful people in the US government who could deny the company licenses, seize its technology or bandwidth, and place restrictions on the frequency and users of its service.”

If Skybox is grounded by the US government, then that could be an opportunity for this country. According to David Willetts’ pamphlet for Policy Exchange, 40% of the world’s small satellites are made in Britain (in Guildford to be exact).  Having covered our own country with CCTV cameras, the logical next step would be to cover the world with their space-based equivalents. 


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