For decades, only the government had the means and experience to handle geospatial data, particularly for defense and intelligence purposes. But the pendulum is swinging toward an exponential growth in commercial applications, and providers are eager to demonstrate just how versatile their products can be.
While observers see a future where geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) providers can exclusively service sectors like oil and gas, pollution monitoring, and the financial and insurance markets, the defense and intelligence (D&I) community is still expected to anchor these companies’ portfolios for several years to come.
Satellite operators capturing GEOINT data via radio frequency (RF), synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and multispectral to hyperspectral imagery see a multibillion-dollar commercial market on the horizon. Those players are developing their own analytics and insights shops, and doing their part to push market rates down to capture that future investment.
From crop moisture and commodities tracking, to natural and man-made disaster assessments, to illegal trafficking monitoring, the commercial applications for geospatial data seem endless. But government contracts, particularly in the D&I sphere, still dwarf commercial contracts in dollar amounts. That being said, the volume of commercial contracts is edging out the defense, intelligence, and civil contracts, says Orbital Sidekick CEO Daniel Katz.
The hyperspectral data provider launched its Aurora sensor as a technology demonstrator in 2021, and has plans to launch six satellites in 2022 to kickstart its Global Hyperspectral Observation Satellite (GHOSt) constellation. The goal is to launch 14 total GHOSt satellites by 2024. The company has eyes on sectors like energy, mining, and oil and gas, and Katz says he’s keen to develop a fire monitoring tool that could use hyperspectral imaging to classify vegetation, soil moisture, or carbon mass.
But for now, the Defense Department remains Orbital Sidekick’s highest paying customer. Exponential growth for commercially applied remote sensing data is still a couple of years away, Katz says, adding, “No one in Earth observation has completely cracked the code for commercial, in a way that commercial is completely outstripping everything else.”
D&I customers will still anchor the Earth observation (EO) portfolio for some time to come, says Shivaprakash Muruganandham, a consultant for NSR. The government is a reliable customer that pays its bills on time, and remote sensing providers are going to get initial funding and long-term contracts from the government. “That will allow [them] to launch and begin operations in the next few years, and keep within the timelines that many of these companies promise,” he says.
Argentine imagery provider Satellogic set up a U.S.-based subsidiary in 2021 to capture “the largest geospatial and Earth observation market, which is the U.S. government,” says Matt Tirman, Satellogic head of North America. That won’t change for at least the next year and a half, he forecasts.
Having D&I contracts also helps data providers develop legitimacy, notes Peter Round, chairman and executive director of RF data provider Kleos Space. The Luxembourg-based company has eight satellites in orbit, and plans to double that number across two launches scheduled in 2022. Currently, about 60 percent of their customers are in the defense market, Round says.
“Having your product used by defense customers in the U.S., France, Germany, U.K., etc, brings an element of respectability, reliability, and trustworthiness to your product,” he notes.
An Ever-Expanding Commercial Market
The commercial GEOINT market has been fomenting for several years, says Amy Minnick, chief commercial officer at BlackSky, a global monitoring company with 12 satellites on orbit and four expected to launch in 2022. That’s thanks to greater incremental capacity on orbit, and more intuitive systems that let customers buy data products with the touch of a button.
“The commercial segments are used to an ordering experience that looks like Amazon,” she says. In addition to BlackSky’s constellation, its Spectra AI interface integrates multiple types of data from varied sources for its subscribers, and was built to be intuitive and mobile-friendly. “Those things will start to unlock the ability for commercial segments to use and to gain insights from what we can do,” Minnick notes.
Data providers are betting that an in-house analytics branch, or strategic partnerships with existing insight companies, will help commercial customers better interpret the raw data their sensors are gathering from space.
Most of Orbital Sidekick’s recent hiring efforts have gone into analytics and software development, to ensure “we can deliver a product that is based on insights, as opposed to just selling pixels,” says Katz.
But other operators want to keep out of the data insights game. Umbra’s SAR microsatellites deliver sub-meter resolution imagery to existing analytics providers. Umbra Chief Strategy Officer Gabe Dominocielo says he doesn’t want to compete with his own customers who are downstream providers.
“We want our customers to do well, [and] to make a lot of money, and the best way to do that is to not compete with them," he says.
Satellite operators see a nearly endless list of potential commercial applications for geospatial data. BlackSky’s monitoring and analytic capabilities are ideal for customers involved in the global supply chain, such as shippers, commodity providers, and trade monitors, says Minnick. The rapid revisit constellation feeding the automated tip-and-cue features built into BlackSky’s event monitoring system can allow customers to quickly see the effects of natural and man-made disasters in a given area.
Multiple players cited huge prospects for the non-governmental organization market, particularly to help with pollution or illegal trafficking. “But they’re not going to sustain new space launches” yet, Kleos’ Round notes. “Those costs are too high.”
With such a spread of opportunities across the commercial sector, some EO observers forecast that data providers will move closer to a verticalization strategy, where companies specialize their services to a key sector or problem set.
RF data and satellite-as-a-service provider Spire wants to keep its options open. The company, which has over 100 nanosatellites on orbit, worked with a third-party consultant to determine the best use cases for its products, says CEO Peter Platzer. The study came up with 175 new use cases and 200,000 potential customers across its main sectors of maritime automated identification system (AIS), aviation (automatic dependent surveillance broadcast, or ADS-B), weather monitoring, and space services. Spire is now working through those use cases.
That strategy helps Spire not only retain its existing customers – which are split about 50/50 between government and commercial contracts – but steadily expand to new customers, by explaining how its space-derived data sets can exclusively solve the customers’ needs, Platzer explains.
Beefed-up on-board processing, optical crosslink technology, and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning (ML) capabilities are helping providers pull data off of their satellites and into customers’ hands at lower latency rates, and with higher data security. As onboard camera resolutions improve and the quality of data from electro-optical sensors can surpass what’s pulled off of airborne drones, opportunities will open up in the insurance and financial sectors, says Satellogic’s Tirman.
It used to be that the only customers who could consume geospatial information, were those that could download reams of data and process it themselves, which led to limited adoption in the commercial industry. But now, providers can process large amounts of data in a very short period of time to interpret a change detection in their sensing data very quickly, thanks to ever-maturing AI and cloud storage capabilities.
Minnick says BlackSky’s constellation capacity has more than doubled over the past year. “We can go from receiving an order from our customers, to being able to capture that image with the analytics in 90 minutes,” Minnick says. “For commercial customers who are trying to say, ‘How do I price this product?’ or ‘When do I estimate my product is going to get to this location?’ – That’s pretty powerful.”
Some companies, like Spire, develop their own crosslink technology in house, to enable lower latency rates and higher data security, as well as “a fantastic geolocation capability,” says Platzer. For the Spire CEO, it’s difficult to picture a future where optical inter-satellite links (OISLs) are not “table stakes” for remote sensing companies – like bandwidth for the internet. Spire deployed its first OISLs into orbit in 2021, after rolling out RF data links over a year ago.
Barriers to Greater Customer Adoption
The long-term success of the GEOINT commercial market is predicated on how well providers can improve pricing models, and improve data accessibility for the customer, says NSR’s Muruganandham.
Certain data providers need to account for market oversaturation. The number of planned hyperspectral constellations for example, are currently in the double digits, and “there's really no clarity on what the demand for that kind of data will look like,” he observes. “It's going to be expensive [and] very data intensive. And on the commercial side, nobody's really going to be willing to pay for it unless it's affordable.”
Providers need to reduce the risk for commercial customers by not trying “to monetize everything,” says Umbra’s Dominocielo. “There’s a roadblock where providers are like, ‘This data’s so valuable; we’re not giving it away.’”
Umbra currently has two satellites in orbit, and plans to launch four more by the end of the year. The company is building a self-tasking platform dubbed Canopy, which will allow any U.S. or NATO-affiliated user to task the satellite directly for a flat price, using a creative commons license, says Dominicielo. Lowering the cost of data, using creative commons licenses, and giving away training data sets would help to reduce the cost of entry for commercial companies into the GEOINT market, he adds.
Observers foresee a cap on the number of satellite providers providing raw data imagery, whether to government or commercial customers. “The satellite operators are able to generate a lot more data than there is actual demand for downstream,” says Muruganandham.
But as the focus shifts to capturing data, and then turning that data into insights, “The ultimate indicator here is, how can players adapt?” notes Katz. “Can they become more end user-focused?”
Some companies have done this by acquiring an existing data services company. Planet announced last year that it would acquire VanderSat, which provides Earth data and analytics to help customers track soil moisture, biomass, and more. Others are entering strategic partnerships, like one recently announced between Satellogic and Palantir Technologies. Satellogic will leverage Palantir’s Foundry platform, to provide higher-resolution imagery data, as well as tailor-made data insights. In return, Palantir will have access to Satellogic’s APIs to accelerate its own MetaConstellation and Edge AI capabilities.
There’s still work to be done to help potential customers understand how to harness GEOINT data for their own benefit. To date, the industry has done a poor job of educating both government and commercial customers on remote sensing data’s viability, Satellogic's Tirman adds. “They need help understanding how Earth observation data can be impactful to their day-to-day business. It just can't be a pretty picture; it has to move the needle for them.”
The hope is that giving their customers the insights and analysis along with the imagery will help to bridge that education gap. “People have always wanted to know where their ships are – Those are not unknown problems,” Spire’s Platzer says. “What is unknown is that the solutions exist today. More often than not, there is a question of, ‘Really? This is possible? You can do this?’" VS