The proliferation of satellite-based imagery and geospatial information products is changing how people view their world. Companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft have recognized the potential of geospatial data to transform the way consumers discover and interact with digital content. But the high cost and low temporal resolution of current satellite-based imaging systems has limited the utility and market penetration of geospatial products.
All of that is about to change.
Imagine a world where individuals can use a smart phone to quickly access their own personalized satellite video feed of any location on the planet; a world where businesses and governments can access a reliable and continuous database of global motion imagery and analytics to underwrite real-time logistics and supply chain management, asset and agricultural surveillance and monitoring, land use and urban planning, oil and gas exploration, econometrics, digital content delivery and visualization, and on and on – and all at a price point that is radically cheaper than current satellite-based imagery offerings.
This may sound like science fiction, but it’s on the horizon. The miniaturization and commoditization of high performance electronics, to include electro-optical and infrared sensors, has enabled a dramatic reduction in the size and cost of satellite-based imaging systems. Combined with the imagery data acquisition and management technologies that the Department of Defense has developed in support of various wide-area motion imagery programs, a constellation of some one hundred low earth orbiting satellites will be capable of providing nearly continuous coverage of the entire world. No more waiting three years for Google Earth to update that picture of your house…
But before all you civil libertarians move underground, here’s something to consider: it’s not going to be Big Brother that develops this innovation. A handful of private companies like SkyBox Imaging and Sierra Nevada Corporation with designs on the consumer-grade “imagery as a service” market are racing to develop their own satellite constellations. Within the next 2-4 years, low-cost, daily-updated satellite imagery of the globe will start to appear on the market, and within ten years the imagery latency will measure in minutes.
But how will this innovation change the market? How will mapping and location-based services take advantage of nearly real-time motion imagery content? And what about the possible impacts on society writ large? What if the protestors in the streets of Daraa, Syria were able to track the activities of Syrian government forces converging on the city or environmental activists were able to remotely monitor effluent releases from power plants around the world? It’s not often that technologies come along that can literally change the world, but this could certainly be one of them.