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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Skybox to be acquired by Google for $500 million

June 11th, 2014 by Susan Smith

Google announced it will acquire Skybox for $500 million yesterday.


Who is Skybox and why does Google want it?

The move toward satellite imaging, which is what Skybox provides, is a strategic one for Google. The small startup company Skybox Imaging was started by co-founder and director of marketing and customer relations Ching-Yu Hu and three friends while grad students at Stanford in 2009. Ching-Yu-Hu envisioned that they could “index the earth the way Google indexes the Internet.” So I guess that’s where Google comes in: already there, in the way of indexing. And Skybox is already there in terms of providing the satellite. Last November the company launched its first mini-bar-sized satellite, SkySat-1 into orbit aboard a Russian Dnepr rocket. Plans are to launch eight more by the end of 2015.

Skybox even has its own rocket.

“We call this Earth Observation 2.0, where satellites are simply sensors and the magic is in harnessing scalable computing and unbounded analytics to find answers to the world’s most important geospatial problems regardless of data source,” says the “About Section” on their website. What is truly remarkable about Skybox is that they have built their own satellites and their own image processing algorithms, raised more than $91 million in funding and now has 120 employees. In comparison to a company like DigitalGlobe that contracts with the military for its satellites and imagery. They say they built everything themselves so they have the flexibility to address the needs of their customers.

But it has to be more than that. Unlike the satellite imaging giant DigitalGlobe, the primary contractor providing satellite imagery for the military, Skybox’s targeted customers are big public companies. Recently they helped in the search for the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

In April Skybox Imaging was named Inc. Magazine’s #1 Most Audacious Tech Company. This is quite phenomenal also given the fact that commercial imagery ventures do not have a high success rate.

“In our mind, we really see ourselves as an information company,” Hu says. “In the future, our customers won’t know or care about the satellites. They’ll just care about the images that make huge decisions.”

Skybox hired Space Systems/Loral to build the next 13 spacecraft and Orbital Sciences Corp. to launch six in late 2015 on a Minotaur-C rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Skybox plans to offer customers timely access to still imagery, full-motion video and data services. The company has signed agreements with Japan Space Imaging of Tokyo and Emirates Space Imaging (ESI) of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to distribute its products. Under the agreements, Japan Space Imaging and ESI affiliates European Space Imaging and Space Imaging Middle East will install Skybox’s compact ground stations, known as SkyNodes, with 2.4-meter antennas and associated equipment to task satellites, downlink, process and distribute imagery.

Skybox sees itself offering service-level agreements for data dependability. The data they offer is not “pristine” but can be delivered to the customers on demand. Most customers would like Skybox to do analysis for them rather than just imagery. Most of the needs centered around satellite imagery for these customers comes from not being able to get the desired information. Hopefully, with Skybox, they will be able to.

According to an article in The New York Times, initially, Skybox will help improve Google’s dominant mapping service. But over time, the five-year-old start-up and its ability to launch relatively cheap satellites could aid a bigger Google goal: expanding its Internet service offerings.

The tech titan is already exploring using other novel methods — including balloons and drones — to provide online access, especially to people in sparsely populated locations.

“Their satellites will help keep our maps accurate with up-to-date imagery,” a representative for Google said in a statement. “Over time, we also hope that Skybox’s team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief — areas Google has long been interested in.”

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Categories: geospatial, GIS, image-delivery software, mapping, satellite imagery, sensors

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