In 2010, a team of former NASA scientists came together in an attempt to use data from space to understand life on earth better. Satellites were large and clunky, exorbitantly expensive, and needed an overhaul. They began working out of a garage in California and soon came up with compact satellites that could be bulk-produced, called CubeSats. They called themselves Planet Labs.
In 2017, Planet had 149 satellites called "Doves" in orbit. These small, standardized satellites were built and launched at a fraction of the cost of traditional satellites. Doves are designed to capture high-resolution images of the earth's surface, which are then sold to customers such as government agencies, NGOs, and agricultural companies. Planet used off-the-shelf technology to build its satellites, making them smaller, cheaper, and faster to produce. The satellites were launched in batches, permitting greater coverage over shorter periods. The availability of massive volumes of data at significantly lower costs has proven useful in several instances. For example, after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Planet was able to provide high-resolution images of the island, which helped emergency responders to assess the damage and plan their response. Similarly, agricultural companies use the data to monitor crops and make more informed decisions about planting, harvesting, and fertilizing.
Rocket science need not be challenging or expensive
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 at an estimated cost of $33 million (per the 1985-dollar rates). The satellite was set in orbit with lower computing power than most handheld devices of today and survived 21 days in a low Earth orbit. The proliferation of connectivity, smaller chips, and more resilient technology has set in motion a new breed of satellite companies that are on a mission to lower the costs of building and launching satellites. This fosters a robust ecosystem where newer, younger players have the opportunity to create cost-effective launch vehicles and disrupt a traditionally expensive market. One of the biggest disruptors in this domain was SpaceX, which pioneered reusable rocket technology, drastically reducing the cost of launching satellites into orbit.
While new-age satellites might be smaller, it does not limit their use cases or potential. OneWeb is a company that is building a network of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to provide high-speed Internet access worldwide. The company's satellites are designed to be smaller and cheaper than traditional communication satellites, and the network is expected to provide Internet access to remote and underserved areas. Similarly, Starlink is a satellite Internet constellation operated by SpaceX, providing satellite Internet access coverage to 48 countries.
While communication is one of the most predominant use cases, the new-age satellites are delivering significant capabilities powered by data. Synthetic Aperture Radar or SAR is a type of active data collection where a sensor produces its own energy and then records the amount of energy reflected after interacting with the Earth. Information obtained through SAR is useful when looking through clouds during disaster management or bad weather. Iceye operates a fleet of SAR satellites that provide high-resolution imagery of the Earth's surface, regardless of weather conditions or time of day. The company's satellites are designed to be smaller and cheaper than traditional SAR satellites, making them more accessible to a wide range of customers, including governments, environmental organizations, and businesses.
Hyperspectral data obtained from satellites provides a wealth of information that cannot otherwise be made available using traditional imaging techniques. Hyperspectral data is gathered using sensors that measure the amount of reflected or emitted energy across a wide range of electromagnetic wavelengths, from visible light to infrared and beyond. One of the biggest advantages of hyperspectral data is its ability to capture more wavelengths that allow us to measure vegetation, minerals, land cover, and more. It allows you to see more than optical imagery by tracking various signatures that objects give off. Organizations like Wyvern and Pixxel have specialized in hyperspectral data and deliver value to use cases such as mining exploration, agriculture, defense and security, and environmental planning.
Big disruptors. Small challenges.
Several young players are disrupting the market in the satellite industry. Organizations such as Planet and BlackSky have created a niche for themselves and grown from startups to publicly listed companies employing several hundreds of innovators. The largest disruption smaller players have brought to the market is in the engineering of satellites. Traditionally, satellites have taken a long time to design and build. They also carry the added risk of huge financial losses if the launch goes wrong or fails. Smaller satellites pose a smaller risk and are often built faster than traditional ones. Many attribute this time-to-market success to smaller companies openly adopting commercially available software and technologies to drive faster value.
However, smaller satellites have their setbacks. Typically, they carry the computing power of a mobile device. Their size does not make them smarter than larger satellites, but it does deliver powerful solutions and continues to gather vast volumes of data. Their small payload sizes pose certain challenges too. There are fewer instruments on board and a limited power supply, which sometimes lead to shorter life spans. Similarly, limited communication bandwidth can, in certain instances, be a bottleneck to the amount of data that can be transmitted.
This does not mean that new-age satellite innovators are losing out. On the contrary, the positives have outweighed the negatives, making them the go-to choice among several industry players. With the vast volumes of data generated by the new-gen satellites, deriving meaning from it and being able to make logical decisions often proves a challenge. This allows organizations like Cyient, with years of experience in geospatial intelligence and space systems, to help organizations leverage patterns in the data to derive effective business insights.
Historically, technology has always witnessed a shrink revolution. Computers, mobiles, printers, radios, and other devices began as clunky and bulky forms before shrinking to consumer-friendly sizes, progressively delivering more value than their predecessors. The satellite industry has seen this trend too. It remains to be seen how far organizations will innovate and at what point they will hit their threshold. That said, the gathering speed of technology development promises us several benefits in the near and distant future.
About the author
Gareth has been with Cyient for 17 years in various roles, most recently as Head of Location Based Solutions. He has had a passion for geography since high school, where his teacher told him to get into an emerging technology called "GIS." Since then, he has maintained his passion for GIS and Geospatial by working closely with our largest Geospatial customers as well as industry startups and SMEs.