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June 16th, 2014
What’s the significance of Google’s purchase of Skybox, and the removal of imagery restrictions?

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Last week was a remarkable one for earth observation announcements. First was the news that Google would purchase Skybox Imaging and their low Earth orbit satellites and planned constellation for more than $500 million. Then there was the news that the Commerce Department was lifting imagery resolution restriction on DigitalGlobe, opening up what the company deems to be a $400 million market for higher resolution earth observation imagery. Both of these events are significant, and when combined speak to the incredible promise of more regular monitoring at increasing resolution.

The improved resolution puts satellite imagery on par with aerial imagery collection resolution, yet with the relative safety of space and at a higher and more extensive vantage point with frequent revisits that allow for regular monitoring. The Skybox Imaging purchase means that the dominant mapping platform provider now has a regular earth observation sensor input for its maps as well as a match in Skybox’s mission to fundamentally change humanity’s understanding of the planet. More than one barrier was lifted this past week, and in a high-profile manner that has educated many to the promise of geospatial awareness.

Global Competition

The removal of resolution restrictions has been debated in the past, but remained due to security concerns. With the Director of National Intelligence and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency calling for relaxed restrictions amidst their evolution toward immersive understanding, the removal of the restriction seemed inevitable. Making sense of increasing information rather than controlling information distribution is the underpinning of this Internet Age, and it’s fitting that this realization finally reached those that have oversight of the commercial earth observation satellite market.

There is increasing global competition for earth observation, which was referenced as part of the decision making process. Indeed, the earth observation market is exploding with entrepreneurial spirit lately with many new companies indicating their intent of launching earth observation satellite constellations. With this increased satellite competition — as well as an increasingly capable platform with unmanned aerial systems — the removal is important. More than anything, it stands to open eyes as well as pocket books with an incredible increase in satellite imagery clarity and utility.

Profile and Profit

With Google’s purchase announcement, and DigitalGlobe’s discussion of the market size for high-resolution imagery, these numbers gained Wall Street’s interest and respect. These figures are incredible in terms of Skybox’s less than five-year effort for a payout of more than $500 million or DigitalGlobe’s awareness of unrealized demand that’s almost equal to that figure. With these figures and technological developments, the full commercialization of commercial satellite imagery is likely upon us, where perhaps we’ll finally see the military investment in such commercial systems dwarfed by the applications and services that can be sold to the private sector.

Much of the commercial promise has been waiting for costs to come down for both the imagery as well as the costs to derive information that improves a business’ bottom line. The costs for both have certainly come down significantly, and are set to reduce further as demand increases and our tools become more automated. The fact that the costs are coming down with a better product that can be ordered for almost any place and day, means that the users will get more for less, and isn’t more for less the basis for most sales upticks?

Frequency and Understanding

DigitalGlobe stocks went down 4% on the Skybox announcement because Google is a big client, but it’s rather a knee-jerk reaction given that the WorldView-3 satellite is set to launch later this Summer, and with the ability to deliver very high resolution imagery at greater frequency. Yes, Google does get their own in-house earth observation capacity with a promised quick refresh once the constellation is built out, but it will take some time for Google to be able to replace the DigitalGlobe inputs to make their map products.

The coming increased frequency and increased resolution are advancements that many within the geospatial community have been dreaming of for some time. With these two improved inputs to our workflows, there will be new derived data products and new discoveries. The added frequency also means a whole new area of operational insight, where companies can gain an outside audit of operations through insight from above.

It’s refreshing to read such words as, “Skybox’s images will inevitably lead to apps and services no one can envision—with unknowable disruptive potential,” from a Wall Street Journal reporter. While the geospatial industry has increased its profile and impact over time, the coming streams of real-time imagery are going to turbo charge its importance as it greatly improves our global awareness.

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