A few months ago, the Commerce Department made a small change that has big ramifications for Google Maps, private industry, and privacy advocates. Regulators gave a satellite company called DigitalGlobe permission to sell imagery with 25 cm resolution to private third parties like Google. This Wednesday, DigitalGlobe launched their new WorldView-3 satellite, which six months from now will let any private buyer purchase images that are almost twice as sharp as what Google Earth could obtain before—so sharp that the images can identify individual trees and cars on the ground.
In a telephone interview, DigitalGlobe CTO and founder Walter Scott told Fast Company that the new satellite, which launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, lets users view images at a 31 cm resolution from space. Customers can also request images up to 25 cm. Or, as he put it, "With that resolution you can see whether a vehicle is a sedan, convertible, minivan, SUV, or a delivery truck. You don’t just see if there’s a vehicle there, but if it’s the same one as before. You can read lettering painted onto the street, and even estimate the number of bathrooms or fireplaces on a house."
DigitalGlobe’s biggest customer is the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which works with both the Pentagon and spy agencies—but DigitalGlobe also serves a wide variety of private corporations the company refers to as "location-based customers," primarily mapping firms like Google or Microsoft/Bing, as well as players in agriculture, forestry, energy, mining, and other private sectors. DigitalGlobe also licenses imagery to other departments of the United States government.
One of the satellite’s selling points as a profit generator—Reuters estimates that Wednesday's launch could unlock approximately $400 million in opportunities for the company—is that it takes pictures from space, on demand, for government and private sector clients on the ground. Through contractor Satellite Imaging Corporation, DigitalGlobe offers pictures of the ground within 24 hours of an order, promising "rush tasking orders for satellite image data around the world are accepted in support of live events, natural disasters, global security, and various other applications in which FAST delivery of image data is critical." DigitalGlobe has previously offered this service through other imaging satellites they currently have in the sky. However, as mentioned, the new satellite offers significantly improved imagery.
If the new WorldView-3 satellite can identify individual cars on the ground, it's a safe bet that future commercial satellites will have sensors powerful enough to identify individual people on the ground. When that happens, it poses a potential privacy issue for mapmakers and the public—it's easy to blur faces of individuals on Google Street View, but blurring individuals out from satellite images poses entirely different future challenges.
For most of us, the new satellite will mean one major change: Over the coming months and years, Google Maps (and Bing Maps) will become much sharper in resolution. DigitalGlobe is Google’s biggest vendor of satellite imagery, and the WorldView-3 will lead to significantly improved image quality. Most of Google Maps consists of 70 cm imagery; photos from the WorldView-3, as they’re added to Google Maps, will make imagery much sharper.
However, the ultimate cash maker for the satellite firm—which contracted with Ball Aerospace to build the satellite itself, with the rocket being launched into space by Lockheed Martin—is in the very specialized cameras it can use on behalf of American and foreign government agencies and corporate buyers with the need to analyze large plots of land.
Kumar Navulur, DigitalGlobe’s director of next generation products (a real job title), told Fast Company that the new satellite can, for instance, produce imagery for agricultural buyers which can measure the moisture in a tree canopy, crop health, and soil composition. Alongside a camera, the satellite uses an infrared system developed by Exelis. The short-wave infrared systems have a powerful and lucrative secondary role: They allow the satellite to take images of the ground even when clouds or smoke are in the way.
DigitalGlobe also has a subsidiary called Tomnod which is a crowdsourcing program for digital imagery. The service is used to aid emergency efforts and was recently applied to California wildfires, flooding in the Sudan, and the Malaysian MH370 disaster. When disasters occur, the subsidiary gives interested amateurs access to free satellite imagery over the Internet to find anomalies that can help rescuers. Tomnod was acquired in 2013 as part of a spate of DigitalGlobe acquisitions— another was a company called Spatial Energy which mainly serves multinational oil and gas companies.
As satellite imagery becomes more affordable and powerful—WorldView-3 is the sixth satellite DigitalGlobe has put in the sky—and geographic information systems become embedded in every industry from retail to landscape architecture, Google Maps and competitors like Bing Maps will become even more powerful. Meanwhile, the unknown factor in Google Maps’ future operations is Google’s own satellite company—California-based Skybox.
Google acquired Skybox for $500 million earlier this summer. Interestingly, the acquisition went through the day before DigitalGlobe publicly announced they had permission to sell higher-resolution images from the Commerce Department. It's not known whether the timing of Google's Skybox purchase had anything to do with the government allowing higher resolution satellite images for the commercial market. Despite speculation by some that Google would switch to primarily using Skybox, the new DigitalGlobe satellite (which has been in the works for years) is significantly more powerful than any of the satellites in Skybox’s constellation. Analysts believe a major factor in the Skybox acquisition was the company’s powerful geographic analytics engine rather than the satellites themselves. The new satellite means Google, despite having their own satellite company, are effectively locked into their competitor’s ecosystem for years to come.
In the meantime, get ready for your Bing and Google Map satellite imagery to get way less fuzzy in 2015.
[Image courtesy of Ball Aerospace]