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Lower Manhattan at one-meter resolution. The IKONOS satellite took this picture in 2000, when such detailed imagery was new on the market, and the Twin Towers (left, center) were intact. (Digitalglobe)

Spysats for Everyone

Swarms of small, orbiting cameras are coming. To watch.

What about the data collected by these shiny new things—who will buy it? Kevin O’Connell, who heads a Washington consulting firm called Innovative Analytics and Training and chairs the Department of Commerce’s Commercial Remote Sensing Advisory Committee, worries about the market. With a background in photo intelligence, he is as impressed as Marshall’s astonished spysat veterans by what these new smallsats can do in terms of image quality. But producing lots of new pictures won’t spell success unless there’s a solid business plan, he says. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the satellite business, it’s that ‘Build it and they will come’ will not happen.” Companies like UrtheCast and Skybox say they’ll pursue all possibilities for making money, from selling data to farmers monitoring the health of their crops to selling ads on websites where (they hope) millions will tune in to watch videos.

However the imagery market develops, O’Connell and many others watching this field agree that as lots of current, high-quality Earth images are produced, for free or very low cost, we could be on the verge of a revolution, as transformative to society as GPS and Google maps have been.

Marshall seems aware of the power this technology could unleash. A self-described “peacenik,” he wants his company to be a positive force for humanitarians and environmentalists, although he expects to make money too. Planet Labs’ website, with promises to “Do Good. Be Responsible. Provide Open Information,” echoes the Google philosophy.

Here’s one way Marshall sees the Dove images being used: Even if the cameras aren’t sharp enough to identify individuals, they will be able to notice when holes in the Amazonian forest suddenly open up. Today’s infrequent satellite coverage shows illegal logging only after the fact, when it’s too late to stop it. Marshall says: “What we want to do is provide data that enable people to act. ‘Oh, there’s some people today, at this latitude and longitude, doing logging in the Amazon. Let’s go and stop them.’ ”

In November, the UrtheCast cameras will go up to the space station on a Progress-M cargo vehicle, and spacewalking cosmonauts will attach them to the outside of the Zvezda module. Skybox and Planet Labs hope to start launching their satellite consttellations around the same time.

By early next year, all of them will be clicking away from orbit, sending down terabytes of image data to dishes on the ground, all day every day, for anyone to view. Expect more Earth-viewing smallsats in the future, ever more capable and growing in number.

If you’ve got something to hide, you’d better bring it inside.

Tony Reichhardt is a senior editor at Air & Space.

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