Earth Observation: A Decades’ Worth of Changes in Data, Resources, and Process
Last edited: April 24, 2023
Published: April 26, 2022
Space Industry Researcher
In 2011, government organizations deployed one hundred percent of Earth observation/remote sensing (EO/RS) satellites. By today’s standards, they didn’t deploy that many, about 30, but those deployed satellites were capable, as many produced high-quality imagery. The satellites, and the government organizations operating them, may not sound familiar at all, such as Nigeriasat, Megha-Tropiques, ELISA, and Resourcesat. There were, of course, other government EO/RS satellite operators with satellites already in orbit: Landsat, Sentinel, Pléiades, Meteosat, and MODIS. Privately run EO/RS satellites from GeoEye, RapidEye, SPOT, and DigitalGlobe also collected imagery.
The product these organizations offered was data, and the type of data they collected depended on what they believed customers wanted. For example, in 2013, authors of “Landsat and Beyond” listed 28 different programs that used “Moderate-Resolution Land Imaging Data.” Listing all of those programs would take up too much space in this article (go here to download and read it on page 9). Still, many had a mandate for climate monitoring (such as drought monitoring and flood mapping) or land management (such as urban planning and development and deforestation). Europe’s Copernicus program, on the other hand, identified merely six data focus areas: land monitoring, marine monitoring, atmosphere monitoring, climate change, emergency management response, and security. While Copernicus’ list is shorter, it encompasses all of Landsat’s program uses — including defense (security). There are also government-run satellites providing weather data.
Except for the latter two — emergency management and security — the remaining Copernicus focuses had one obvious commonality: resource management. Monitoring land, the marine environment, the atmosphere, and the climate gave governments a better understanding of how resources are being used within and without a nation’s borders (because polar LEO satellites eventually orbit over all parts of the globe). This commonality doesn’t deviate from the initial reason proposed to implement the U.S. Landsat program back in 1965, “…a remote sensing satellite program to gather facts about the natural resources of our planet.” Based on the history, Landsat set the initial program rationale for gathering Earth imagery, which other EO/RS organizations seem to have adopted.
More Satellites Than Ever
These limited focuses on data collection make sense for the government EO/RS satellites. There were (and still aren’t) very many of them. The organizations operating them must somehow prioritize what to focus the satellites on. Governments are attempting to gain some feedback on resource-use and management policies while juggling their satellites’ limited time, space, and communications. The feedback allows them to determine if increasing or easing limitations on resource use is appropriate. However, one of the primary reasons for these limitations, a small number of EO/RS satellites, has rapidly become moot.
At the end of 2021, hundreds of EO/RS satellites orbited the Earth. Most of them are operated by commercial satellite operators, a share reversal that will not shift back to the government operators anytime soon. Companies such as Iceye and Planet use tiny satellites to collect information about the Earth’s surface and the activities of humans living on it. Because there are many more EO/RS satellites in orbit than ten years ago, the questions for EO/RS data today have changed. They have shifted towards how to get it, how much it costs, its quality and resolution, and recency (instead of wondering whether the data is even available).
However, there seems to be little chatter about diverging from the data focus areas established nearly sixty years ago.
Straying From the Beaten Path
Perhaps because of the inertia of these legacy-established ideas and the public good they provide, the new commercial companies haven’t brought new product ideas to the EO/RS market segment. So why should there be new product ideas? The assumption is that a significant increase in EO/RS satellites also creates a significant increase in data (whether the increase is enough for the data to become a commodity is a different question). More data should present more and increasingly diverse market opportunities.
The other reason to develop different EO/RS products is based on a simple question: why would entrepreneurs want to resolve problems that governments are resolving with current products, typically as a subsidized service (Landsat and Copernicus provide free data access)? It’s hard to compete with free or open-source imagery, even if a company offers a superior product to the free alternative. The competition is more challenging than that, though, as customers using legacy data have an established workflow and are used to dealing with the necessary quirks and hurdles to gain access to it. Going that route also means entrepreneurs are choosing to compete with organizations that have nearly infinite budgets — at least when compared to the budgets of startups.
However, it’s not just a case of more EO/RS satellites offering more data products. Different types of sensors on satellites are deploying today that weren’t as prevalent a decade ago, such as infrared imagers, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensors, hyperspectral sensors, and radio frequency (RF) detectors. The nearly unprecedented availability of choice of data collected and the increasing numbers of EO/RS satellites orbiting the Earth SHOULD prompt the creation of products that are less about resource management and more for creating value. Entrepreneurs willing to experiment may find it helpful to blend different data types on services offered by startups like Orbify.
The legacy from government EO/RS products has helped nations and their citizens to understand their world, anticipate weather events, and provide insight into possible solutions for combating climate change. These are helpful products developed over decades of lessons learned using in-demand, low-density resources to create them, often offered freely. However, entrepreneurs seeking to find leverage into the EO/RS market are confronting different circumstances, including the legacy offerings from governments.
The changes should incentivize entrepreneurs to “think different,” offering data and products that are useful and unheard of.
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