A $100 billion Earth observation market?

Increasing innovation and investment in commercial Earth observation could create a $100 billion market, if startups and established firms can show potential customers how satellite imagery can help solve problems they face, according to speakers at the Space Foundation’s Space Technology and Investment Forum in San Francisco Aug. 16.

“We have seen a lot of companies launching constellations but we haven’t yet seen all the value unlocked and all the downstream businesses being created that benefit from that,” said Chris Boshuizen, entrepreneur in residence at the Data Collective, a San Francisco venture capital firm, and co-founder of Earth imaging startup Planet. “It’s exciting we are building these constellations but it would be even more exciting if we solved your problems. That’s how we get from a $5 billion industry to a $100 billion industry.”
Earth observation firms are relying on large and small satellites to gather various types of data and to combine data in new ways. Still, the industry needs to do more to share the data with application developers, according to the speakers.

Industry veteran DigitalGlobe is investing in a wide array of uses for its 100-petabyte imagery archive and the additional terabytes of data its space-based sensors capture daily.

“There is so much more opportunity to understand what the heck is going on inside all those pixels,” said Shay Har-Noy, DigitalGlobe Geospatial Big Data Platform vice president and general manager. “We are just at the infancy of creating an ecosystem of developers who are going to leverage the data in unique ways.”

While working as Planet’s chief technologist, Boshuizen created a roughly 10-page list of applications for the firm’s imagery, including an archaeologist who used it to identify promising archaeological sites under receding glaciers.

“The number of potential uses and customers is uncountable,” Boshuizen said. “No single company can address all those needs.”

Cloud Constellation sees clear skies ahead

Cloud Constellation plans to contract by year’s end with one of four satellite manufacturers who have certified that they can build the firm’s SpaceBelt, an interconnected string of orbiting data centers.

“Four major satellite manufacturers examined the feasibility of the SpaceBelt and affirmed this system is feasible to build and will work,” said Scott Sobhani, Cloud Constellation chief executive. The firm is not disclosing the names of the manufacturers.

The LA-based startup seeks to raise at least $50 million through a Series B funding round. A Series A round raised $5 million.

With the Series B money, Cloud Constellation plans to begin building its first 10 satellites to create SpaceBelt, a $450 million constellation designed to offer secure data storage and the ability to transmit data worldwide in under a second. Launches are slated to begin in 2018 with service starting in 2019.

While designing the SpaceBelt, Cloud Constellation discovered the telecommunications backbone they intend to build could be used for other purposes such as offering a central point for third-party satellite networks to connect with one another, Sobhani said.

Still, Cloud Constellation continues to focus primarily on data security because cybersecurity threats to government and industry are continuing to grow. By sending sensitive data into orbit, SpaceBelt’s industry and government customers can isolate data from the Internet and ensure data are not being sent through jurisdictions they are prohibited from crossing, Sobhani said.

After launching the first 10 SpaceBelt satellites, Cloud Constellation plans to continue to launch satellites to keep up with demand. The SpaceBelt may include one or more satellites flying under the flag of any nation eager to acquire its own orbiting data center, Sobhani said.

On Aug. 11, Cloud Constellation won U.S. government approval for its Space-Based Electronic Data Storage and Transfer Network System patent. The patent shows that data sent to the SpaceBelt will travel from ground stations to communications satellites in geostationary orbit. Cloud Constellation plans to lease transponders from existing geostationary satellite operators, which it will use to relay data to and from SpaceBelt satellites in low Earth orbit.