Six years ago, a group of scientists and engineers, among them three former NASA employees, gathered in a garage in Cupertino, California, with a goal: to found a company whose mission was to capture an image of Earth’s entire landmass every day. To do so, Planet Labs, as they called themselves (they’ve since rebranded to become Planet), had to use satellites small enough and cost-effective enough to launch en masse in a “fleet” that could traverse Earth, snapping images and collecting data.
They settled on CubeSat satellites–devices no bigger than a shoebox, and built with consumer smartphone technology for imaging and data collection (the first of this type of CubeSat were built by NASA’s Ames Research Center and inspired by first-generation Google Android phones. The small remote-controlled box, equipped with sensors, floated two miles above the Earth via balloons). As Planet evolved, they began designing and building their own mini satellites, which they call “doves,” and updated their technology simply by switching out the smartphone used for the latest model.
By choosing not to be precious with their technology, and instead integrating whatever the market has to offer, Planet has been able to keep its costs low–and as such, launch the greatest number of satellites into orbit at once. Since its founding six years ago, Planet has grown from a team of seven people to 500, and has launched over 300 satellites on various rocket-launch missions. Its “Mission 1” of imaging Earth’s entire landmass every day, wrote co-founder Will Marshall on Planet’s blog, is officially complete. We’re used to the idea of satellite imagery and mapping, but the format we’re most familiar with–Google Maps–is only updated every five or so years. Planet’s volume and speed of imagery are unprecedented.
Currently, Planet is operating around 200 satellites that travel a pole-to-pole path through the atmosphere, capturing around 1.4 million images per day as they go and feeding it back to 30 ground stations the company set up across the world. That work, Marshall added, will continue. Planet has become a lifeline of vital data for a number of companies that rely on consistent, up-to-date imagery to inform their work.
Planet’s two biggest clients, currently, are governments and precision agriculture companies. Companies like Farmers Edge, a farm and agriculture management company, can arrange a contract (often to the tune of tens of millions of dollars) with Planet to access their stream of satellite imagery. By analyzing the images, they can detect the health of crops (for instance, applying an infrared filter to the images shows concentrations of chlorophyll, which signals unhealthy vegetation), and how it changes over time. Similarly, governments and research agencies can use Planet’s images to monitor land loss due to climate change, track deforestation, and observe development patterns from above. In the aftermath of the hurricanes that struck Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico this fall, Planet’s data proved invaluable to humanitarian and governmental missions needing to swiftly identify the hardest-hit areas.
What’s next for Planet, Marshall wrote, is “building a platform that can harness and make sense of this massive amount of information, to enable users to answer their questions.” The company, he added is working on developing object-recognition capabilities that would, for instance, enable users to count how many homes are in a specific area, or build out custom information feeds, like, Marshall writes, a tally of the number of ships in the biggest global ports at any given time.
“In short,” Marshall wrote, “Planet will index physical change on Earth the same way Google indexed the internet.” Now that the company has completed its goal of photographing the planet in real time, it’s moving on to help its users put that data to the best possible use.