‘Businesses Will Not Be Able to Hide’: Spy Satellites May Give Edge From Above


An interesting commentary on Linkedin led us to this informative report from Cade Metz of the New York Times.  Here’s the introduction to the article which is followed by a summary from the Linkedin editors, and Tech Expert Massimiliano Passalacqua:

In October, the Chinese province of Guangdong — the manufacturing center on the southern coast that drives 12 percent of the country’s economy — stopped publishing a monthly report on the health of its local factories.

For five consecutive months, this key economic index had shown a drop in factory production as the United States applied billions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese exports. Then, amid an increasingly bitter trade war between the United States and China, the government authorities in Beijing shut the index down.

A small start-up in San Francisco began rebuilding the index, lifting information from photos and infrared images of Guangdong’s factories captured by satellites orbiting overhead. The company, SpaceKnow, is now selling this information to hedge funds, banks and other market traders looking for an edge.

High-altitude surveillance was once the domain of global superpowers. Now, a growing number of start-ups are turning it into a business, aiming to sell insights gleaned from cameras and other sensors installed on small and inexpensive “cube satellites.”  The companies and governments that spent decades using internet services, cameras and other devices to collect data on regular people may soon get a taste of their own information technology.

“Businesses will not be able to hide from competitors or regulators or watchdogs,” said Mark Johnson, chief executive and co-founder of Descartes Labs, another satellite information start-up. “They need to realize that their traditional competitive advantage — information — will be available to everyone.”

Nearly 730 Earth observation satellites were launched over the last decade, according to Euroconsult, a research firm that tracks the space market. In the next 10 years, 2,220 more will follow them into orbit, training an increasingly wide array of sensors on the planet.

Orbital Insight, in Palo Alto, Calif., is one of the first companies to build a business around cube satellite data. Sitting in Orbital’s offices on a recent afternoon, James Crawford, the company’s founder and chief executive, who goes by Jimi, opened his laptop and pulled up a report on three big-name retailers: J. C. Penney, Macy’s and Sears.


Based on the company’s satellite data, a color-coded line graph showed a steady drop in the number of cars parked outside the thousands of stores operated by the three retailers. The drop was particularly steep for Sears, which had filed for bankruptcy just days earlier. “This is one of the reasons they’ve been under so much pressure,” Mr. Crawford said.

You don’t need satellite photos to know that Sears is failing. Companies like Orbital Insight are typically tight-lipped when it comes to more important data — as are their customers — mainly because they see this information as a competitive advantage.

But the line graph showed how Mr. Crawford and his start-up can target the performance of individual businesses. Orbital Insight tracks activity in more than 260,000 retail parking lots across the country, and it monitors the levels of more than 25,000 oil tanks around the world.

Not surprisingly, Orbital Insight and SpaceKnow said, some of their customers use this satellite data to track the progress of their direct competitors, though those customers and their competitors are very reluctant to talk about it.

Mr. Crawford believes the satellite analysis will ultimately lead to more efficient markets and a better understanding of the global economy. Fred Abrahams, a researcher with the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, sees it as a check on the world’s companies and governments.

Mr. Abrahams and his team use satellite imagery to track everything from illegal mining and logging operations to large-scale home demolitions. “This is why we are so committed to these technologies,” he said. “They make it that much harder to hide large-scale abuses.”

All of this is being driven by a drop in the cost of building, launching and operating satellites. Today, a $3 million satellite that weighs less than 10 pounds can capture significantly sharper images than a $300 million, 900-pound satellite built in the late 1990s. That allows companies to put up dozens of devices, each of which can focus on a particular area of the globe or on a particular kind of data collection. As a result, more companies are sending more satellites into orbit, and these satellites are generating more data.

And recent advances in artificial intelligence allow machines to analyze this data with greater speed and accuracy. “The future is automation, with humans only looking at the very interesting stuff,” Mr. Crawford said.

From Lindein Editors:  Businesses and governments have met their match in information warfare as startups have begun exposing the affairs of these global superpowers using satellite surveillance. SpaceKnow is one such startup that uses satellite photos and infrared images to cultivate and sell relevant data and analytics on these influential entities, The New York Times reports. This wave of space insight innovation turns the tables on companies and governments that have previously used the internet and technology to collect data on regular people.

Massimilliano Passalacqua, Leading Expert in Innovation and Sustainability for Deep Tech & NBIC, offers the following commentary via Linkedin:

The explosion in low-cost satellites is changing the game of business intelligence, Earth’s orbit now peppered with multi-spectral CubeSats gives us new levels of insights: high-altitude surveillance was once the domain of global superpowers, now a growing number of start-ups are turning it into a business, aiming to sell insights gleaned from cameras and other sensors installed on small and inexpensive cube satellites. The growth of private satellites is on a familiar upward trajectory, while the price for accurate near-real-time monitoring is declining rapidly. There are tons of business and social implications related to this trend, ranging from illegal mining and logging operations monitoring, to business performance analytics, nonetheless satellite imagery is a narrow niche as of today.

  • 01/24/19
  • Cade Metz