In February 2015, IEEE-USA, "the world's largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity," released a position statement urging US government officials to support and incentivize development in the space-based remote sensing industry, for fear of falling behind foreign governments and other global commercial organizations. Although the U.S. pioneered the industry in the 1970s, Europe and Asia have surpassed our capabilities over the last decade.
"Carefully targeted investments in space-based remote sensing and geospatial imaging technologies are urgently needed to enhance the operational effectiveness of public and private sector earth observation programs that advance scientific knowledge, promote economic growth, improve public safety and ensure national security in increasingly competitive global markets," the report stated.
IEEE-USA's concerns are well-grounded. The U.S. cannot afford to fall behind since space-based remote sensing is already a major component of growth in a wide range of commercial industries. Today, remote sensing is being used to locate sub-surface commodities such as natural gas and oil; improve agricultural yields by measuring soil moisture and crop growth; and aid environmentalists in detecting air, ground and water pollution—just to name a few of its many applications. Military, national security and international crisis management applications are also increasing. And thanks to a unique convergence of economic and technical factors, the industry appears to be on the verge of an enormous growth spurt.
"The [earth observation] industry is about to get merged into the much larger big data industry in terms of geoanalytics, at which point the economic impact of the industry increases from being a few billion dollars in size to potentially tens of billions of dollars. There are numerous indications and studies suggesting that that transition is already underway," Wade Larson, President and CEO of UrtheCast, recently told Directions Magazine.
BBC Research recently released a report on the state of the industry. The organization and report agree with Larson predicting that the global market for remote sensing products should reach nearly $8.9 billion this year and grow to $13.8 billion in 2021. The space-based conventional platforms segment of the industry is expected to grow from $3.3 billion this year to $4.3 billion in 2021.
While the industry grows, it will also continue to transform from one largely controlled by a small number of "government space, maritime and weather forecasting agencies" to one in the hands of "hundreds of small entrepreneurially driven enterprises," according to a quote in MarketWired from BBC research analyst, James Wilson.
UrtheCast is one of the entrepreneurial companies already leading the industry's transition. The Vancouver-based, Canadian company currently operates "the world's only Ultra HD 1m, full-color video camera in space"— known as Iris— and a multi-spectral sensor, Theia, from the Russian segment of the International Space Station. The company also owns and operates the Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 satellites through a Spanish subsidiary, Deimos Imaging.
UrtheCast's imagery is transmitted to a series of ground stations. Individuals, companies and government agencies can then order that video and imagery via customer service agents, or access imagery on the company's web platform APIs — in some cases, very close to realtime. Clients may request specific data and imagery over specific coordinates, and have access to open source code to create their own applications — all at a surprisingly affordable price.
The company's first space-based data began transmitting in 2014. Since then, its clientele has put the data to very innovative use:
Last year, UrtheCast partnered with the United Nations to task and deliver imagery of Palmyra's Temple of Belin Syria. "That image was used for UN-led analysis, which confirmed that the temple was indeed demolished by the extremist group ISIS," Larson said. "We also anticipate that this will be possible for missions like refugee crisis monitoring." He added, “Global Forest Watch (a World Resources Institute initiative) has begun ingesting UrtheCast data into its platform, which allows people to monitor forests across the world. This is a very admirable program, and we’re happy to have partnered with them in the name of planet stewardship.”
Some companies have used UrtheCast's imagery for some plain old fun and straight-forward advertising, as well. "The Pepsi video that featured about a dozen UrtheCast videos and the Heineken space selfie that was snapped with help from Deimos-2 [are memorable]. Those were two crowd-pleasers, and both presented unprecedented brand-driven uses of video and imagery from space," Larson shared.
What motivated the pioneering company to get into the business back in 2010, when it first unveiled its single-minded mission "to provide a high-resolution video data platform for internet users, app developers, educators, media outlets, government bodies, humanitarian relief organizations, and environmental monitoring services?"
"First, we are keen Earth Observation enthusiasts; like many others in the business, we want to see the use cases and applications of EO expand and gain far broader application and utility in society and the economy. We think there are numerous big, important global problems that can benefit in really significant ways from the broader and more systematic application of space-based remote sensing. And what we are doing, along with others around the world, is helping pioneer that democratization of EO data in order for it to have a huge impact upon areas as diverse as deforestation, disaster relief, agriculture, desertification, security, water management, and many other areas besides.
Second, we believe that the industry is entering an exciting period of profound growth and change, driven by a number of important converging trends:
- a reduction in the cost of building satellites thanks to new, ultrafast space-qualifiable micro-electronics
- a reduction in launch costs thanks to a newly competitive international commercial launch industry
- the emergence of massive, low cost cloud computing services
- the maturation of the Internet for large-scale global data distribution
- the emergence of many new and powerful “big data” predictive analytics and geoanalytics algorithms
- the massive growth in hand held devices that provide near ubiquitous mobile and in-situ computational decision support to governments, businesses, and consumers
- the rapidly accelerating growth in demand for “big data” information solutions in a wide variety of domains, including agriculture, forestry, water management, mining, infrastructure planning, environmental monitoring, transportation, shipping, security, taxation, industrial production growth prediction, urban planning, traffic, and insurance, to name a few.
Third, we are a business and we think these new trends present an amazing opportunity to create value for our customers and our shareholders, " Larson said.
The converging trends Larson mentioned are driving the growth of the industry word-wide, so just how does his company plan to stay ahead of the competition? By releasing several more innovations currently in the works, of course. According to Larson, GIS professionals should be on the lookout for these developments coming soon:
- "In addition to fully launching our UrthePlatform, UrtheCast’s 16 satellite OptiSAR™ Constellation is right now being designed to bring something very unique and special to the EO and GIS industries by offering for the first time, a fully-integrated SAR and optical imaging capability.”
- OptiSAR™ will be theworld’s first fully-integrated, multispectral optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar commercial constellation of Earth Observation satellites, and more than commercial industries are interested in its capabilities. Just days ago, April 4, UrtheCast announced that it had established a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. According to the press release, OptiSAR™"is expected to provide unmatched space-imaging capabilities, enhancing support to NGA’s national security mission and the broader global remote sensing community."
- "As well, our recently-announced 8 satellite UrtheDaily™ constellation has been designed to offer unprecedented coverage of the world’s landmass — the entire planet imaged at 10:30 am, everyday, with high quality multispectral imagery at 5 meter GSD.”
To prepare for the future, you can get familiar with what UrtheCast already offers on its website. View the gallery of images; sign up for a developer's account or subscription services; or check out the company blog. If you happen to be in Vegas, stop by the National Association of Broadcasters Show this week to meet the UrtheCast Crew in person.