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The Problem With Satellite Data Is …That It Is Not A Commodity

Our guest today is Joe Morrison. Joe is currently the Vice President of Commercial Products at Umbra, a satellite and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) start up. Far from what you may expect, he went to university for religious studies. From there, he got a taste of entrepreneurship manufacturing backpacks. When he began to find this unsatisfying, he connected with Azavea, an ethical company with a quality team that inspired him to break into the satellite imagery industry. After spending five years apprenticing and learning, he migrated into his current role and foresees this fascinating industry keeping him (and many others) busy for the remainder of their professional careers.

Is Satellite Imagery a Commodity?

In preparation for the geospatial economics lesson we will be traversing, let’s go ahead and define what a commodity is. A commodity is a standard, interchangeable product or good which may be used as the input for creation of another product or service. While imagery absolutely satisfies the second part of this definition, we will see that it is far from standardized, or interchangeable.

In short, no, Satellite imagery is not a commodity.

Commodities are commodities because you can buy them, and good luck buying satellite imagery. You will need to call in a series of favors, and go through a highly classified number of miles of red tape, including lawyers, contracts, and assorted investigations into your intentions before you may have the privilege of spending a huge amount of money, months after your initial inquiry.

Even though there is a remarkable amount of oversight associated with imagery collection, this is not enough to have established an industry standard format for storage, or documentation for indexing.

If imagery is so clearly not a commodity, why are we having this discussion? Well, aerial and satellite imagery are absolutely essential for a wide variety of applications, and have been for some time. Imagery is needed for mapping, monitoring, and all the knowledge and research it enables, and there is no real substitute for it. Despite the financial restrictions, it is still infinitely more practical, in terms of time and finances, to collect imagery than it is to build that information from a manual survey of assets.

Comparing Satellite and Aerial Imagery

Let’s go ahead and continue our lesson by quickly differentiating between satellite, and aerial imagery. Satellite imagery is, of course, collected by satellites.

The image footprints collected are very large, collected from very high elevations (hundreds of miles), and generally of lower resolution than aerial imagery. Aerial imagery, in contrast, has smaller footprints, comes from lower elevations, and is of higher detail. Aerial is also easier to collect on demand, as you can get it from manned, or unmanned aircraft, which are much more available and flexible than satellites.

Here is a very cool live interactive map provided by Esri of all the satellites currently in orbit (Spoiler: 75% of them are space garbage).

The space age only recently blessed us with satellite imagery, but aerial images have been collected since 1860 (the first was this image of Boston collected by hot air balloon). Ongoing regular collection by various government, and more recently, commercial and private, agencies has created the illusion of a wealth of spatial data.

While there certainly is a great deal of imagery out there, it is not all created equal.

The lifecycle of imagery is much more complicated than most people realize. It is not as simple as snapping the photographs, georeferencing them, and moving on to analysis. Collected imagery must go through pre-processing, including simplification, transformation, and combination, in order to begin to become a usable product. This preprocessing is subject to a series of executive decisions about how to form the final product, and there are no standard guidelines being used. Different organizations may have their own unique processes. This means that even if two groups are provided the same base set of images, their imagery products may look very different.

This lack of standardization is a major issue. It makes it difficult to share data between organizations, and can cause issues in larger workflows as plug and playing with a wonky data format may grind everything to a halt. There is a grassroots movement looking to help fix this. The Spatio-temporal Asset Catalog (SPAC) has had success promoting a standard for online access, which has been adopted by the Open Geospatial Consortium. This can help enable a standard directory structure which would allow indexing and a streamlined search of finished products, improving accessibility overall.

Economics and the Imagery Industry

The military will always have the newest and most advanced technologies in this space (pardon the pun). In fact, there are even restrictions on the quality of imagery that can be collected commercially (at least in the US) to avoid conflict with military interests. As time goes on, however, the technology may potentially be released to the commercial industry.

The history of GPS technology provides some context here. Although the technology was released to the public in the 1980s, the accuracy of the data provided was scrambled to prevent people from matching the US military’s resources. This scrambling was ended by President Bill Clinton in 2000, and allowed the commercial space to blossom. It is possible that military-grade satellite and aerial imagery technology will follow the same path, but for now there are too many unknowns to be sure.

There are three big names in the commercial satellite imagery business, MaxarAirbus, and Planet. When it comes to government sponsored programs, in the US you will be looking at the Landsat series of satellites, whereas Europe’s counterpart project is Sentinel. Landsat 9 will launch September 16th.  If you are looking to invest in the commercial imagery industry, Satelogic, Planet Labs, and Black Sky have all recently gone, or made announcements that they will be going public.

Although imagery is in high demand, there are not currently enough high-quality providers to stimulate the competition needed to drive down the price.

There are currently a couple hundred players in the space, and there likely will not be enough market pressure until that number reaches the thousands. Some will satisfy the high quality data needs, but many more will provide the lower quality resolution that is pretty standard today. Assuming the industry can inch towards standardization of how data products are presented (not necessarily how they are preprocessed), it will start to matter less and less where the imagery came from. As long as the end-use case can be reliably served, no one is going to be too concerned about what is going on behind the scenes, only what is on the ground.

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)

The basic functionality of synthetic aperture radar is that a satellite moves along a linear course, taking a series of returns at a known interval. By understanding the satellite’s position in space, and the exact distance it and the returns have traveled, a number of triangulation measurements can be calculated. These measurements allow for the correction of images in a way that allows them to be combined to obtain resolution in the single digits of centimeters.

Optical imagery can only be successfully collected under certain conditions. Optical sensors are also passive sensors, this means they need the light of the sun in order to illuminate the study area, for this reason, they follow a sun synchronous orbit, generally passing over the equator at 10am and 2am every day. The thing about the equator is that this small band of space harbors a disproportionate share of the Earth’s population. Coupled with this, it is also covered in clouds 60-70% of the time. This means optimal conditions for the  collection of optical imagery are rare in the place that it is needed most.

SAR is unique in that it does not care about any of the obstacles faced by optical imagery sensors. Since the data is ultimately collected by radar, rather than a camera – darkness, clouds, and haze all become issues of antiquity. This remarkable flexibility is why SAR is so groundbreaking.

It is, however, not without fault. Pre-processing of the data is still necessary, and this is time and resource consuming. In fact, it can be more resource consuming than with traditional forms of satellite imagery because SAR is so new on the scene. There has not been enough time to diagnose and standardize working around common issues. Speaking of standardization, on theme with the rest of the industry, there is not even a standard format for sharing and representing SAR data.

While there are still a number of obstacles in front of the imagery industry, it continues to hold great promise for helping us create a better and brighter future.

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.

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