#SatDiversity and #FatData are two hashtags I did not expect to see blaring across the screen when I attended the SatSummit conference this week. These bold declarations are something new: a compression of expression, capturing with perfect brevity the major themes of a fledgling tech space on the cusp of bringing real change almost as quickly as the terabytes of data that rain down to Earth from satellites bearing the names of these space-technology pioneers. Here’s some key takeaways from the event.
Diversity in product offerings is taking shape in remote sensing and it’s following the tried and true form of innovation precisely as Clayton Christensen describes it in his seminal business strategy book, The Innovator’s Dilemma:
Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in mainstream markets. But they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use. — Christensen
Essentially, the big incumbent company forges a path, and then smaller, cheaper products emerge from new companies to fill niche consumer segments.
The quote is strikingly similar to the strategy pursued by Planet Labs and Astro Digital. It is as if the CEOs read Christensen and the next day decided to make disruptive remote sensing companies. In this scenario, Digital Globe is the successful incumbent, launching just recently a top-of-the-line satellite called WorldView 4 estimated to cost more than $600 million. It is the Lexus of commercial satellite platforms with multispectral images at sub-meter (31-centimeter panchromatic images) resolution. This is the highest quality commercial grade imagery you can get. It is expensive because the high resolution imagery is so much more then pretty pictures. The multi-spectral part lets users to do amazing things such as monitor specifically the crop health of a plantation, a critical tool for establishing alerts related to food security and other natural resources.
Sources of Disruption
Planet Labs and Astro Digital are the small-sat companies playing the role of disruptors. They focus on a segment of customers, one that requires good imagery of an area on regular basis and they do so at a fraction of the cost of the high-end providers. The imagery produced by small-sat companies is by all measures of less quality than Digital Globe’s. The resolution is lower at 3 to 5 meters and it is without the multi-spectral bands that let you monitor vegetation quality, heat, dryness, and all matter of other things. But here’s the thing. You can do a lot with 3-meter imagery, especially when it covers the entire globe a few times per day. Cargo ships for example are wider and longer than 3 meters, so if you need to monitor the movement of ships in a port then Planet Labs might be the best option.
But this incumbent being disrupted by an upstart innovator is actually an old story and incumbents have learned how to do small-scale innovation (see Amazon and Alphabet). Don’t count out Digital Globe; this is by no means the story of the beginning of the end of a corporate giant. Instead we will see new products from Digital Globe that are innovative derivatives of its existing product line.
#FatData was another theme presented by Bronwin Agrios, making a subtle distinction from big data in that the smallest unit of data in remote sensing, say a 30-meter resolution image with its metadata is still big and we need great services to process these images. That is AstroDigital’s angle, relieving the user to download data and instead create a suite of APIs to help developers build things with code without necessarily needing to create their own fat data stores.
Another less obvious theme from the summit related to end-users’ ability to make use of the data, especially the international development community. Considering the expanding sources of imagery available to us consumers, we need to keep up by ensuring we have the capacity to use the data to answer important questions relevant to our work in development. That seems to be the gap in the market now, with plenty of companies offering data and services but less clarity around how to work with the information.
SatSummit did a great job of being a venue for product launches and announcements. Here are a few:
- State of the Map US is in Boulder, Colorado, this year.
- Digital Globe has an Open Data Site.
- The Global Partnerships for Sustainable Development Data announced API Highways
We had a great time at SatSummit and are extra motivated to start crunching data with all these images that are available. We hope you are, too.
Welp, Valentine’s Day is coming up and we’ve made it through the space-based small talk so let’s cue Dave to set the tone on our way out…