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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 »

Special Coverage: Greater Clarity from Space — Update on Satellite Imagery

September 15th, 2014 by Susan Smith

Satellite imagery has undergone a paradigm shift in the past couple of years.

Airbus MOJ Tracker

Airbus MOJ Tracker

Financing the building of satellites and contracting satellite imagery used to be the sole province of governments. Satellite imaging is now morphing into a market where very high-resolution images are available commercially and startups can actually build their own satellites.

According to John Murtagh, Geo-Intelligence Strategy Partner for Airbus Defense and Space, the main change in the industry is that the profile of the industry has changed. “What used to be the preserve of the military and scientific community is now much more an embedded component of applications used by anyone with a smartphone e.g. location-based services. However, the market must continue to evolve and grow in scope, as satellite imagery is really not accessible to most industries. There is a need to continue investing in ‘big data’ spatial management, focusing on smart access and data analytics.”

Because of the federal budget cuts and the financial outlay of putting a constellation of satellites in space, most of the commercial satellite imaging providers have either merged or been acquired by other companies, such as the acquisition of GeoEye by DigitalGlobe. The two primary contenders in North America now are DigitalGlobe and Airbus Defense and Space.

From Germany comes BlackBridge, formerly RapidEye, providing end-to-end solutions such as satellite operations, data center and geocloud solutions. With the help of new funding, they will be developing a new generation satellite constellation. European Space Imaging provides very high-resolution satellite imagery to customers in Europe and North Africa and offers advanced VHR satellites and services.

WorldView-3, courtesy of DigitalGlobe

WorldView-3, courtesy of DigitalGlobe

One significant game changer has been recent: this year DigitalGlobe, Inc. received permission from the U.S. Department of Commerce on its application to allow the company to sell its highest-quality and industry-leading commercial satellite imagery. Consequently, the U.S. government will relax restrictions to allow for commercially available satellite imagery up to 25 cm resolution – this being twice as detailed as the previous limitation of 50 cm.

DigitalGlobe was already positioned for this: their DigitalGlobe WorldView-3 which launched August 13, 2014, (Worldview-3 launch from Vandenburg) is the first commercial satellite set up to capture these high resolution images at 25 cm. Within six months of this historic launch, those private industries who want these high-resolution images and videos of the globe can have them for the asking – and the ticket price, of course.

The high-resolution images from the $463 million Worldview-3 are so sharp that maps’ level of accuracy and detail will increase so that it can determine 10-inch objects such as telephone poles, mailboxes, garbage cans and other things attached to ground level. Imagine, being able to see such things from space! Customers can see through smoke, take a look beneath the ocean’s surface and determine the mineral and moisture content of the earth below.

Just to show how the commercial market for satellite imagery has shifted over recent years, Google and Microsoft are customers of DigitalGlobe and Airbus, along with NASA, NOAA, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and other U.S. federal agencies. This year Google signed a multi-year contract with DigitalGlobe to use satellite imagery for apps like Google Earth, Maps and Street View.

Startups Populate Space

The appearance of such start-ups as Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging with their low-cost homemade satellites, represent disruptive technology in the satellite imaging space that could impact consumers or at the very least, customers who would not ordinarily spring for high-resolution space imagery. Skybox was recently acquired by Google for $500 million, a move that signals Google’s intention to expand its Internet service offerings.

Skybox Imaging

Skybox Imaging

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 they were 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.

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 satellites costing from $300,000 to $4 million could aid a bigger Google goal: expanding its Internet service offerings.

“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.”

Dulles International Airport, courtesy of Planet Labs

Dulles International Airport, courtesy of Planet Labs

Three-year-old Planet Labs has raised $65 million in funding and already has several satellites in orbit, that they’ve fashioned cheaply from electronics and modern computing efforts. Planet Labs satellites are smaller than those built by Skybox, and are about the size of a tissue box. CEO Will Marshall has reported that his satellites can snap photos of the planet on a weekly basis with a 3- to 5-meter per pixel resolution.

Because they are able to produce so many satellites, once operational, Planet Labs will soon be able to claim they have the largest number of orbiting commercial imaging satellites. They send two satellites into orbit simultaneously and are targeting agriculture to purchase services to use the imagery to determine when are the best times to grow and harvest crops.

Costs Coming Down

DEM, Courtesy of PhotoSat

DEM, Courtesy of PhotoSat

For those traditional vendors of satellite imagery, costs are still reliant upon the performance of a satellite, the changing face of technology such as increased and less expensive processing power, and policy changes. “Satellite surveying costs are already substantially lower than the costs of ground surveying or airborne LiDAR,” said Christine Hollander of PhotoSat. “Satellite technology costs will continue to come down as processing power becomes less expensive and speed increases.”

John Murtagh of Airbus believes the main drivers for the cost of satellite imagery are technical. “The capabilities of satellites have a direct impact on the cost as the more performant satellites (resolution, accuracy, location, etc.) are generally more expensive to build and operate. However the productivity of these highly capable satellites has increased dramatically, which has an impact on unit costs. This simplistic view should also be considered through the prism of data policy initiatives that are, for example, promoting the free and open access to a number of datasets with relatively low resolutions. The result so this is that any future evolution in the cost of satellite imagery will primarily be determined by the value offered to the client rather than to any specific technology.”


Each satellite service company offers a wide variety of services and capacities.

With the very-high-resolution twin satellites Pléiades 1A and 1B, SPOT 6 and now SPOT-7 satellite, Airbus Defence and Space’s optical satellite constellation will offer the company’s customers a high level of detail across wide areas, a highly reactive image programming service and unique surveillance and monitoring capabilities.

The Geo-Intelligence program at Airbus Defense and Space offers a wide range of products and services derived from both very high and high-resolution optical and radar imagery primarily acquired by the Pléiades, SPOT 6 and SPOT 7 and TerraSAR-X/TanDEM-X satellites. Airbus is the only commercial company to offer both high-resolution optical and SAR solutions. Among the services Airbus offers are:

– Reference Layers that are ready-to-go into any GIS software.

– Satellite-derived digital elevation models that provide highly accurate height information regardless of relief and weather conditions. A new industry standard is being set by geo-intelligence experts at Airbus with the launch of its latest DEM product, WorldDEM.

– Monitoring services combine access to Airbus Space & Defense’s satellite constellation with expertise in image analysis, processing and interpretation to provide change detection and monitoring services over a given area of interest.

– Data access and management services include data streaming, hosting, software platforms for specific applications, e.g. GEOINT, and multi-satellite direct receiving station solutions.

An example of new innovation available by partnerships is that of BlackBridge and MDA Information Systems LLC. BlackBridge announced a strategic partnership with the U.S. company, MDA Information Systems (MDA), to introduce a new change monitoring solution, RapidEye Persistent Change Monitoring (RapidEye PCM™).

BlackBridge’s RapidEye imagery is incorporated into MDA’s Persistent Change Monitoring (PCM™) technology with this new change monitoring system.

RapidEye PCM makes it possible for speedy updates to cartographic datasets.  MDA’s patented change detection technology uses scale- and sensor-independent algorithms to compare a stack of images over time and quickly identify areas with lasting changes. RapidEye PCM can identify only lasting changes, such as new construction or permanent infrastructure changes, saving on manual scanning costs by up to 90%.

The incorporation of RapidEye imagery with MDA’s PCM technology allows users to identify small-scale changes as much as 5 to 5 meters. With added high-resolution imagery, they can update cartographic data sets up to 1:5,000 scale.

PhotoSat uses images from several satellite constellations and provides global coverage. They provide the highest accuracy topographic surveys (DEMs) available from stereo satellite photos and achieve elevation accuracies greater than 30cm.

“Our satellite topography developed from a technology we invented has the capability to map surface features to better than 30cm accuracy in elevation,” explained Christine Hollander. “Satellite-based mapping is now suitable for engineering applications such as open pit volume change measurements, mine tailings monitoring, toes and crests mapping and oil and gas seismic planning. Our clients are using topographic data as an extension to and replacement for ground surveying and LiDAR.”

At the Esri User Conference 2014, Beau Legeer, of Exelis Vis spoke on the topic, “Advanced Modalities and GIS,” beginning with the use of SAR technology. SAR has been around along time but is more expensive for regular GIS users, and is only used by governments. Some good SAR data may be available for free, said Legeer. Exelis provides visualization information solutions such as ENVI, a geospatial software foundation with processing and analysis tools that are easily customizable.

“More spectral bands from multi-spectral and hyper-spectral sensors are now available from WorldView-3,” he said. “There are unique considerations for high-resolution datasets. Bringing localized scale to analysis is something that can be done better than before, as well as improved pixel purity.  Spectral information can be used even with low spectral resolutions.”

Results of using high spectral resolution may include:

  • Material identification
  • Achieve spectral separation of species
  • Run advanced vegetation indices

Use cases:

  • Separate weeds from crops
  • Calculate burn ratios and assess forest fire burn severities
  • Identify minerals associated with hydrocarbon presence
  • Detect “invisible” hazards
DigitalGlobe Products & Services

DigitalGlobe Products & Services


SPOT 7 image of La Mecque, France

SPOT 7 image of La Mecque, France

Airbus Defense and Space operates a fleet of satellites as a constellation, with the Pléiades satellite offer 50cm imagery products across a 20km swatch, up to 100km x 100km in strip mapping mode. The twin satellites (Pléiades 1A and 1B) operate in a phased 180 degree orbit enabling daily revisit for frequent monitoring.

SPOT 6 and SPOT 7 work in concert with the Pléiades satellites to complete the optical constellation. The SPOT satellites are designed for providing large area coverages, making them very suitable to serve cartographic and monitoring applications. The daily acquisition capacity for both of these SPOT satellites is 6 million sq. km.

TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X are radar satellites that acquire high-resolution and wide-area radar imagery independently of weather conditions. These sensors can acquire imagery down to 25cm resolution with a maximum capacity of 40,500 in a single scene.

Also Airbus offers DMC-class imagery offering rapid coverage and revisit of large areas at 22m and a near real-time capacity with competitive pricing as well as FORMOSAT-2 imagery for high-resolution change detection.

As a result of their agreement with the U.S. Department of Commerce, DigitalGlobe will be permitted to offer customers the highest resolution imagery available from their current constellation. These updated approvals will permit DigitalGlobe to sell imagery to all of its customers, not just the U.S. Government, at up to 0.25m panchromatic and 1.0m multispectral ground sample distance (GSD). This takes effect six months after WorldView-3, which launched this August, became operational. The change to national policy comes with the support of the U.S. Departments of Defense and State and Intelligence Community, and will hugely impact the sale and quality of commercial imagery available to commercial clients.

DigitalGlobe currently operates a fleet of five high-resolution earth imaging satellites. GeoEye-1 and WorldView-2 are the two that collect imagery sharper than 0.50m, and all customers will have access to that imagery at the highest native resolution. WorldView-3 will provide even higher resolution at 0.31m, and the GeoEye-2 satellite, which is nearly complete, will capture similarly sharp images when it is launched. GeoEye-2 will replace a satellite that is currently in service or expand the constellation, depending upon market demand.

Jeffrey R. Tarr, DigitalGlobe CEO said that the WorldView-1 satellite will be shifted into a different orbit so that it can image the earth in the afternoon local time each day. This allows the entire DigitalGlobe constellation to monitor changes on earth at various times throughout the day.

BlackBridge secured funding of $$22 CDN for its next generation of satellites, RapidEye+ and to expand their current range of geospatial solutions. RapidEye+ will be a constellation of five satellites with an imaging capacity that will far exceed the current RapidEye constellation’s capacity of 5 million km2 per day.

The RapidEye+ superspectral system will include 14 bands strategically placed for agriculture, vegetation monitoring, land cover discrimination, water quality, and many other applications. This band set also includes a panchromatic channel better than 1 meter resolution. RapidEye+ is expected to launch in 2019.

What’s in the Future?

According to John Murtagh of Airbus, the market for satellite imagery needs to be developed further. “The current usage has not utilized the full capabilities of what satellite imagery can provide. Technical capabilities and the quality of our products are more advanced than what was available a couple of years ago.”

Better algorithms and faster processing have changed satellite topographic surveying, for example, a widely adopted technology. According to PhotoSat’s Christine Hollander, “Over the past 12 months we have progressed from monthly mine pit surveying with accuracies of 30 cm to bi-weekly tailings surveying with accuracies better than 15cm.”

As knowledge of these capabilities becomes more widespread, costs continue to come down, and technologies such as the cloud make it possible to view and analyze high-resolution imagery, more  industries and individual commercial firms will begin to want to adopt satellite imagery services.

Related GISCafe Voice links:

Airbus Defense and Space satellite imagery of Sochi, Russia, Imagery of Sochi, Russia, site of the Winter Olympics 2014

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Categories: ArcGIS, ArcGIS Online, Big Data, BlackBridge, Bluesky, cloud, conversion, data, DigitalGlobe, DMTI Spatial, eSpatial, Esri, Esri UC 2014, field GIS, geocoding, GeoEYE, geomatics, geospatial, GIS, Google, GPS, Intergraph, Intermap, laser radar, LBS, Leica Geosystems, lidar, location based sensor fusion, location based services, location intelligence, mapping, mobile, NASA

One Response to “Special Coverage: Greater Clarity from Space — Update on Satellite Imagery”

  1. Joe Drake-Brockman says:

    Great article – things change so quickly its hard to keep up. It good to know what products are available

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