There have been many years of anticipation for high-resolution satellite imagery that can rival the image clarity and sensing capacity of airborne platforms. This wait has now culminated with both capacity, thanks to the advancements aboard DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite, as well as eased regulations. The U.S. Department of Commerce decision to allow the sale of resolution up to 25 centimeters, effectively halved the prior 50 centimeter restriction, and now DigitalGlobe is delivering.
While we’ve seen sample images, this past week was the first time that this imagery was available for sale. With an image resolution, or ground sampling distance, of 30 centimeters, satellites are playing on par with other platforms, and it’s an unprecedented data source for such high-resolution imagery on a global scale. This capability opens up new applications, particularly in areas of natural resource measurements and monitoring, for a new business edge as well as improved understanding.
In addition to its high resolution imaging sensor, DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 has an atmospheric sensor that captures details such as moisture levels, sun illumination and particulates in the atmosphere. This Clouds, Aerosols, Water Vapor, Ice and Snow (CAVIS) instrument also measures the amount of light reflected from the ground, so there are readings both of the atmosphere as well as the illumination of the ground as read by the sensor.
These inputs combine to solve a longstanding problem with satellite imagery, allowing DigitalGlobe to calibrate and correct the images so they have consistent clarity and color. This consistency or normalization of the imagery is key to image comparison, and to the ability of algorithms to automatically compare and tease out knowledge from this pixel-based information. With its atmospherically-compensated imagery, the company can compare and discover changes with computers, a key advancement given the number of human eyes that would be required to compare and correct each image from this constant collector.
Beyond the high resolution, there are also multiple bands of collected wavelength with eight multispectral bands and eight short-wave infrared bands. The multispectral bands (visible and near-infrared (VNIR) bands can be tuned for specific signatures, allowing users to see specific materials on the ground, including minerals or even distinguishing building materials. The eight bands of short-wave infrared (SWIR) allow for the sensor to to cut through smoke and haze.
These bands are set to help farmers and researchers understand the moisture content of the Earth and vegetation health; to allow foresters to classify tree class, species, and drought stress; and allow for mineral and chemical measurement and identification for mining and geology. The combined spectral resolution again helps with computer-aided interpretation and analysis, because it helps to further classify the imagery and to extract like classes for comparison that can easily be done with machines. The combined competency of the sensors aboard WorldView-3 leads to the continued automated extraction of valuable information.
We’ve heard about “getting beyond the pixel” for some time, going from trading on images to trading on the derived information or knowledge that can be extracted from the imagery. With multiple sensors circling the Earth, the advantage is increasingly on the insight rather than just the amount of land that can be covered or the number of governments or enterprises that want to extract information from the imagery themselves.
Instead, the imagery is set to transform the company by providing a backbone of exclusive information that can be traded to multiple industries and organizations that are looking for the answers that it can provide. DigitalGlobe has expressed an emphasis on product creation in the coming year, and have made moves to diversify their offerings and to acquire organizations with industry expertise, such as Spatial Energy with its emphasis on the oil and gas community.
The automation of information extraction has also met a match with faster data delivery that will now mean delivery of imagery (or extracted information) within days or weeks as opposed to months of years. The maturity of the commercial satellite imagery industry, and the combined competencies that came together when DigitalGlobe acquired GeoEye, are now reaping rewards.
After a rough year of stock performance, where the company shed nearly 30% of their stock price a year ago, there has been a recent rally. Meeting and exceeding analyst expectations has resulted in a nearly 20% gain since Friday, Feb. 27, and that’s before the utility and increased revenue from the highest resolution imagery takes hold.
While imagery collection is traveling a trajectory of smaller satellites and unmanned aircraft systems, there’s still a place for an SUV-sized satellite with tuned sensors that give it an insight advantage. The business of commercial satellite imagery is now set to take off thanks to years of technological advancements that all aim at automation.