Start-Up Seeks to Provide Inexpensive Satellite Images for Nonprofits

Nicole Wallace at the Chronicle of Philanthropy: “Planet Labs, a Silicon Valley start-up, has ambitious plans to bring down the sky-high cost of satellite imagery and significantly increase the recording frequency of such photos—all with the goal of improving life down here on earth. To make that happen, the company plans to set up a nonprofit arm,, to provide satellite images to charities and help them learn how to use the cutting-edge technology to fulfill their missions….
Satellite imagery is expensive, and the photos aren’t updated very often. The interval between image recordings can be from several weeks to more than a year. The satellites themselves are often the size of a school bus, may take as long as a decade to build, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Planet Labs is trying to upend that model. Rather than building custom parts, the company uses cutting-edge—but readily available—electronics and sensors to build shoebox-size microsatellites. The tiny devices have been launched from the International Space State and from unmanned rockets. Modeling its approach on the software industry, Planet Labs redesigns its satellites every three months or so, incorporating new information it learns by testing them in space.
The plan is to encircle the globe with a network of microsatellites that will scan the earth’s surface every day. So far, Planet Labs has launched 71 of the devices. It expects to launch 100 to 150 more satellites to meet a goal of achieving daily imaging in the next 12 to 18 months.
The prospect of cheaper, more up-to-date satellite imagery excites nonprofit technology experts.
Because of the cost, only a handful of large charities have been able to use satellite imagery in their work, says Jim Fruchterman, chief executive of Benetech, a nonprofit technology group in Palo Alto, Calif. He points to Amnesty International’s use of remote imagery to document human-rights abuses in Darfur and Syria as an example.
Lowering the price of the technology will increase the number of nonprofits that can use the data, and more-frequent images will expand the ways groups can use the information, he says. Human-rights groups could, in some cases, use the images to confirm or refute reports they receive, almost in real time, says Mr. Fruchterman….
Some of the ways that nonprofits will probably use the satellite data won’t be that different from applications by the company’s commercial customers, says Mr. Schingler.
One case in point, he says, is agriculture. Many farmers in developed countries already use satellite imagery to help them plan when they should plant and irrigate, says Mr. Schingler. With wider access to remote imagery, he says, nonprofits could help distribute the same information to farmers in developing countries….”