Via Satellite
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From Looking to Listening: NewSpace Changes Course

How Earth observation is changing the mindset of the NewSpace revolution.

The conversations in the NewSpace world are changing. For years, the first questions were about imagery. Companies spent hours describing how observation satellites used antennas to pick up signals from and around the Earth and how we processed those signals into data — only to be asked, “But what is the resolution of the cameras?” You certainly can’t blame anyone for locking onto imaging, especially in the early days, as the primary focus of NewSpace. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words but there is no equivalent phrase for radio signals.

The last year has provided a stark contrast to those formative times for the industry. First, there was consolidation in the imagery space with Planet acquiring Terra Bella, MDA buying DigitalGlobe, and EagleView Technologies purchasing OmniEarth. Second, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that for the first time in history it would be purchasing commercial weather data, and that the technology they wanted was GPS radio occultation. In addition to being a remarkable success for NewSpace, the announcement drove mass recognition of a non-imaging data type and signaled major changes for all of us in the industry.

A Shift in Procurement

Data collection by satellite has long been the realm of governments. They managed the programs, built the satellites, and either had sole access to the data or made it public. That model worked, and continues to work, for nearly every program. However, a combination of budget cuts to those programs and the emergence of a highly skilled commercial sector are creating an opportunity to maintain or increase program quality using commercial data while staying on-budget.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because we’ve seen this trend before. Communications satellites, once the realm of governments, are now dominated by private industry. From satellite phones to satellite television, communications spent nearly three decades converting to a privately-operated industry. Launch services, originally self-provided by agencies like NASA through the 1990s are now primarily operated by Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and SpaceX.

In addition to a fast uptake in the weather community, public agencies are quickly finding avenues to purchase additional NewSpace data sets. When the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency became interested in Spire’s ship data over the Arctic, a joint effort between Spire and Ball Aerospace created an easy avenue to leverage cutting edge data and long-time industry experience. Similar structures and direct data purchases are happening around the world for ship tracking and new radio-based sensors are being proposed monthly.

With the maturing of any new technology comes a growth in the number of downstream applications and value-added services. The availability of satellite data, developments in machine learning, and advances in visualization are combining to create new products which leverage existing data sets and cloud processing to incredible results. Global Fishing Watch, a venture backed by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, uses this data and algorithms to track and predict illegal fishing. Others are able to predict the likelihood of a ship running into pirates on a particular route.

The Changing of a Mindset

In conference halls and meeting rooms around the space industry, you hear people asking questions like “What’s after SpaceX?” or “When will NewSpace find its big hit?” But as we passed the midpoint of 2017, it seems like those questions are beginning to be answered. Despite more than a half decade of looking toward imagery, we should now turn our ears toward listening. All of our technologies, communications, GPS, entertainment and others, have turned our planet into a noisy place full of important signals just waiting to be collected and put into the waiting hands of companies around the globe. What looks like noise at first glance is actually a nearly endless supply of powerful datasets that can empower business, government, and the wellbeing of people around the globe. VS