Moore’s Law for Space-Based Imaging

Hundreds of eyes in the sky, just like this one. Getting better, cheaper, and more numerous every year.

Planet Labs Dove

Imagine a network of satellites, all taking daily pictures of the earth beneath them and reporting that data back to earth in real time.  Owned by the CIA? DOD? NSA?  Nope.  Silicon Valley startup Planet Labs, the latest disruptive innovator in space will have that many small imaging satellites in orbit by the end of this year:

But that is just the start. Last week, Planet Labs announced that it would put about 100 satellites into space from the United States and Russia, bringing the total number of “Doves,” as the company calls them, to 131. That larger network, which Planet Labs hopes to complete within a year, is expected to create a daily photo mosaic of most of Earth.

That mosaic could be valuable to private customers, like agricultural companies monitoring farmlands, or even to governments trying to figure out how to aid natural disaster victims. The company has so far booked contracts worth more than the $65 million in private equity it has raised, according to Will Marshall, the company’s co-founder and chief executive.

Like many disruptive innovations, these satellites (built from mobile phone components!) aren’t as good as full scale ones costing hundreds of millions of dollars, but they cost a tiny fraction of that.  And they’re getting better, and cheaper — really quickly:

By making little machines that are often updated, Mr. Gillmore said, “we’re building satellites with computers that are six months old. Lots of satellites have 10-year-old computers.” Version nine, which is almost complete, cost about 35 percent less than the current version in space, and was made four times faster, he estimated.

And that really is just the start.  The company is planning to add more and more new and improved versions of these satellites over time.  Think of a Moore’s Law for space-based imaging.  More coverage area, more images per day, improved resolution, perhaps observations at additional wavelengths besides visible light.  Real time crop imaging, firefighting, climate monitoring, ecological studies, global security (or insecurity)… What applications might exist that haven’t even yet been conceived of?

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