The race for alternative remote sensing accelerates (part 1)

By on 2 February, 2017

Cubesats, high altitude RPAS and stratospheric balloons all vie for their place in the new space race. Image: NASA


This is the first in a 2-part article written by Anthony Wallace and originally published in the Dec/Jan 2017 Issue of Position Magazine (out now in print).

We used to say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But depending on how you capture that image and what it reveals, it turns out to be worth a lot more in monetary value. Especially when that image shows Earth from above.

That’s why ambitious organisations are rushing to open up the imagery market to all budgets and tastes. Plans are already well underway for competing constellations of miniature satellites, high altitude unmanned aircraft in constant flight, and networks of stratospheric balloons travelling on the wind. The ultimate finishing post: to reach a nexus between cost of operation, comprehensiveness of coverage and the ability to deliver near real-time imagery to a growing list of image-hungry clients.

The term remote sensing for a long time has been considered the exclusive domain of satellites and manned aircraft. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration even uses these platforms in their definition of remote sensing as “the science of obtaining information about objects or areas from a distance, especially satellites or aircraft.”

This article first appeared in the Dec/Jan 2017 issue of Position Magazine (out now)

It turns out that it doesn’t matter how you get your camera into the sky. What matters is what it captures, how it is delivered and how much it costs. We are going to continue to see small remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) mapping limited areas with increased quality, ease and—as of 2016—even LiDAR point clouds. And nothing will compare to what you can measure on the ground. But what’s perhaps more interesting, and arguably more valuable, are the platforms you can’t see. The images being captured continuously from much higher above. The ones planning to capture any point on Earth at all times with, increasing accuracy.

Imagery strongholds

Even since the war era, manned aircraft have been used to capture imagery and continue to provide some of the highest quality remotely sensed data. Australian companies Nearmap and Spookfish, both of them ASX-listed, have been able to develop their own innovative solutions to tap into this valuable market. Since 2009, Nearmap has been capturing high-resolution remotely sensed imagery using their custom-designed ‘HyperPod’ sensor aboard a manned aircraft. With this platform, Nearmap are able to provide orthophotos of an entire city in just a day or two, to a resolution of 7.5cm. Nearmap are regularly flying to update their imagery in areas covering 85% of Australia’s population.

Spookfish, on the other hand, are the new kids on the block. Having also designed their own platform, they plan to begin providing not only imagery, but also 3D information such as building extents and topography, digital elevation models (DEMs) and near infrared imagery. Spookfish also have the ambitious plans to, in its own words, “capture continents, not just cities.”

The story of Nearmap and Spookfish is an interesting one to watch. Both of them are in the process of breaking headlong into the international market as they vie for the US market. However, they certainly are not the only aerial imagery providers out there. Locally, AAM and AeroMetrex are essentially Australian surveying firms with their own fleets of aircraft reserved specifically for aerial surveys. Internationally, there are too many to mention.

Manned v Unmanned

Manned aircraft, however, are not the only established platform by which to capture imagery. For the past two decades, a handful of commercial satellite imagery providers have dominated the imagery market. While their dominance is likely to remain, investment is increasingly turning to alternative platforms.

DigitalGlobe’s recently launched WorldView-4 is perhaps the most advanced imagery satellite there is. From 2017 it will provide comprehensive coverage of 30cm imagery the world over. It was launched at the cost of 1 billion Australian dollars.

Despite nearly half a century of development, traditional satellites have remained very expensive to build and launch. Commercial imagery providers including DigitalGlobe, Airbus Defence and Space, BlackBridge AG, urthecast and Imagesat International are able to achieve impressive image quality and worldwide coverage with established constellations. A number of government space agencies such as ESA and NOAA are even providing much of their imagery freely. All of these providers will be quick to tell you they actually provide much more than ‘imagery’: they also offer insights, analytics, intelligence, orthophotos, DEMs, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and false colour imagery.

None of this, however, has stopped new organisations cropping up to get new satellites between these constellations and the Earth- quite literally. Even some of the above organisations are looking to develop their own more cost-effective alternatives. According to a 2016 market report by Forecast International, some 1,935 remote sensing satellites will be launched over the next 10 years, across 58 separate production programs. Increasingly, cubesats are becoming the dominating proportion of those missions.


The International Space Station releases three nanosatellites—similar to those deployed by Planet Labs—on November 19, 2013. Image: NASA.

Some may find it hard to keep abreast of terms like cubesats; even more find it impossible to keep updated on the suppliers vying to enter this space. Cubesats are generally shoe-box sized satellites designed to be launched en-masse. Due to the relative inexpense of launching lightweight, easy to produce cubesats, nations with even a modest space budget have been able to either plan or launch their first satellites. For the past decade, cubesats have been almost exclusively retained within academic circles. Until now that is.

World View offers their stratollites to “fly your payload”. Image: World View.

According to research by MarketsandMarkets, the nanosatellite and microsatellite market is estimated to grow from nearly AUD$1.2 billion in 2015 to AUD$3.4 billion by 2020, at an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23.2% from 2015 to 2020. Comparing this to the around 10% CAGR expected of the drone and geospatial markets, there is almost double the scope of return for those looking to invest in space micro-infrastructure.

A company out of California, Planet Labs, must have caught wind of this before the rest of pack. Planet Labs has been busy since 2010 developing low-cost satellites and is well on the way to achieving its goal of imaging every point on Earth once a day, with 101 cubesats in orbit that were launched with just nine vehicles. Each satellite is 10 x 10 x 30 cm and utilises mainly consumer-grade electronics, costing a mere fraction of commercial or space agency satellites. Planet labs staff even invent their own terminology. Cubesats to them are known as ‘doves’ and a constellation a ‘flock.’ One of Planet Lab’s many offerings include `change detection as a service’ and ‘imagery a la carte’. Planet Labs now claim to operate the largest constellation of Earth imaging satellites, but this won’t stop others in their ambitious tracks.

Another California start-up, Hera Systems, is also one to watch closely. Since 2013, Hera has had the goal of becoming the first to collect near real-time, sub-one-meter resolution imagery and video of any location on the globe. The San Jose-based start-up plans to launch the first of its satellites operating in 2017.

Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter to make sure you catch part-2.

This is the first instalment in a 2-part exclusive article. Part-2 will be published in the coming weeks and will explore the other growing cubesat constellations as well as high altitude RPAS and stratollites (depicted above).


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