Tracking Urban Change from Space

PLAY OF THE LAND

It started with a simple-in-theory mission: To take photographs of everywhere on Earth’s surface, every single day. But to do so would require a fleet of satellites, smaller, lighter and more agile than traditional models. So, in true Silicon Valley fashion, the founders of Planet set out to break the mold and create exactly that.

Because Planet’s satellites are so small yet capable, we can launch hundreds of them, which enables us to image everywhere every day—a completely unique capability.

“In 2010, three NASA scientists had the idea to make satellites smaller and lighter. They realized that everything in a modern cellphone is in a satellite, and if a phone can be made very small, why can’t satellites be built to be a similar size with the same components? And if you could, would it operate and what would you be able to do with it,” explains a Planet spokesperson. 

The trio tested their idea by putting a satellite in a box and using a balloon to send it up into space. That led to the launch of a single satellite in April 2013 that was a success. Soon after, the founders realized that if they could launch a fleet of small satellites into orbit, they’d be able to see everywhere on the planet every day. Mission accomplished.

Today, Planet operates around 200 satellites—but they’re not the sort of large, clunky satellites that come to mind. The “doves,” as they’re called, are around the size of a shoebox and are meant to essentially be disposable; they’re only intended to last around three years, which is why there are dozens of them orbiting the earth at any given time. They’re made quickly and are constantly evolving as new technology springs up, giving the company the unique ability to adapt to the changing nature of their field.

“Because Planet’s satellites are so small yet capable, we can launch hundreds of them, which enables us to image everywhere every day—a completely unique capability. The one limitation with our satellites is the resolution,” the spokesperson adds. “You can see roads and buildings and can tell if something is a skyscraper; you can see large infrastructure but you can’t see people, so it’s good for detecting broad-scale change but not necessarily for very small changes.” 

Other companies are also getting involved in the creation of smaller satellites. To date, there are around 560 nanosatellites in orbit, and they’re all there for a host of different reasons. 

Fleet Space Technologies, an Australian company, launched in 2015 with the mission to improve global IoT connectivity, particularly to help collect sensor data from the mining, oil and agricultural industries. Co-founder Flavia Tata Nardini notes that since founding the company, the industry has boomed in South Australia, growing to over 50 space technologies start-ups.

Spire, another California-based company with dozens of operating satellites, offers data and analytics for three main industries: shipping, aviation and weather. Using Spire’s network, customers can track shipping patterns in remote regions, access weather data from across the globe and track aircrafts more accurately.

Corporate real estate firms, for example, might use the images to determine the number of cars in a parking lot.

Other companies, including dozens of universities, launch small satellites to track radiation levels, weather patterns, greenhouse gas emissions, ocean depth, atmospheric testing, and more. And, of course, many satellites are launched merely to learn more about how they’ll perform in space.

Part of the unique draw of nanosatellites is their agility and ability to track daily change. For Planet, their daily imagery offers a glimpse into millions of tiny changes that dozens of industries can benefit from. Agricultural companies, governments and commercial mapping firms, for instance, utilize the images for what newness or differences they show. That might mean tracking the deforestation of a certain region, or monitoring ships coming into ports.

Less traditional markets interested in these sorts of images, according to Planet, are insurance, corporate real estate and energy, among others. These industries are less interested in the image itself, and more interested in what the image represents. Corporate real estate firms, for example, might use the images to determine the number of cars in a parking lot (which could lead to interesting insights about the brick-and-mortar retail debate) or the number of new construction zones in a given area. Similarly, energy companies can use the images to monitor whether crops in a certain region are producing the yields they’re reporting, or to count the number of new oil drilling locations in Texas.

Though the nanosatellites’ imaging resolution isn’t as advanced as the larger, more traditional models, there’s a good reason for that. For one, smaller satellites mean smaller lenses, resulting in lower photo resolution. But there’s also a moral aspect at play. While it’s one thing to be able to count the number of cars in a parking lot, it’s quite another to be able to recognize drivers inside the cars.

As technology continues to advance, more companies and universities will get involved in the creation of nanosatellites. They’ll become smaller and lighter, easier to launch and equipped with even more data-processing sensors, leading to new discoveries and exciting new uses. After all, the sky’s the limit.

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