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Satellite imagery is about to get a whole lot more useful for businesses.

We have all become rather blasé about the ability to see detailed imagery of the earth’s surface from space. Ever since Google acquired the technology developed by Keyhole in 2004, the use of satellite imagery in business has grown steadily. Today, it’s about more than mapping and navigation (which tells you where you are) — the focus is on interpreting the imagery, about understanding what you see.

Getting meaningful intelligence from imagery has been a focus of governments and the military intelligence analysts ever since the invention of the camera. Businesses have leveraged the skills of image analysts too — but static image analysis is limited to ‘snapshots” — images that are only representative of the moment they are taken. So Google Earth gets updated only a few times a year. That’s fine of you are interested in identifying events or changes that are seasonal or annual in frequency. But what if you were able to look at the data much more frequently — several times a day, for example?

With that level of “granularity” in time, you could see much more detailed patterns of change, identify the drivers of those changes, and plan (or invest, or not) accordingly. That’s never really been possible before, but that’s about to change. Advances in materials, software, electronics, and optics have made it possible to build ultra-small satellites (weighing less than 5 kilograms — compared with more than 2,000 kilograms for traditional Landsat-class vehicles) that can be launched into a variety of low-earth orbits (LEOs), scanning the earth and capturing images and video on an almost continuous basis.

Given that it costs around $5,200 per kg to launch a satellite to LEO, this is a huge cost advantage as well as improved coverage. A constellation of 100 or so of these satellites can provide close to 100% coverage, reporting back to earth periodically (to conserve power — always a consideration for small unmanned devices that depend on solar energy).

That’s the vision of Planet Labs, founded by former NASA scientists; their “Dove” satellites are ready to go, and there could be 100 or more in orbit by 2018. Now all we need is some imagination in what to do with the image data.

Some of the first consumers of this data could be hedge funds — using analytics on retail parking lot activity, oil storage levels, mining activity, and agriculture to predict the health of various economic sectors and their businesses. While this is probably possible (I am not sure all the correlations work or that spoofing won’t occur), it barely scratches the surface of what might be possible as an accumulated picture of close to real-time human activity becomes available.

All sorts of innovative analytics could be be applied. Changes in vehicular traffic might predict a shift from suburbs to city centers or vice versa. Time-of-day activity analysis could help optimize staffing at retail, leisure, and hospitality businesses, or influence flexible work hours options. Congestion pricing could be adjusted in real time; tidal flow traffic systems could be more highly automated.

Almost any business could combine customer location data (increasingly available via vehicle or smartphone geo-tags) with macro pattern analysis to suggest better times to eat, watch a move, or shop for special offers. This ability to not only know your customer, but to help them avoid congestion and inconvenience has almost limitless possibilities – if you’re ready to integrate the new satellite imagery into existing customer relationship systems, operating infrastructure, and strategic thinking.

Is your business ready for the big picture?

About the Author
John Parkinson

John Parkinson is an Affiliate Partner at Waterstone. John brings extensive experience to the topics of technology strategy, architecture and execution having served in both senior operating and advisory roles.