Analytics & Data Internet of Things

Reflections from Ross: On Drones and CubeSats

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Oceans cover about 71 percent of the earth’s surface. We think of everything as constantly connected, yet in a world where we are drowning in oceans of data the ocean itself is a data dead zone. Once you get a certain distance away from land, there is very little visibility into what happens. And A LOT happens out there. Cruise ships, recreational boats, behemoth tankers, fishing boats, crabbing boats (hello, “Deadliest Catch”)—all of them are just little delayed blips on a radar or map.

Visualize shipping lanes (here’s a map from MarineTraffic). Consider the amount of goods shipped to and from ports across the world. Consider the logistics, the energy consumption, the impact on the oceans, the actual ships (ranging from the massive to little sailing boats), the fishing (some legal, some not), the pirates(!), the weather(!) … the list goes on. Numerous ships and hundreds of containers just disappear each year out there. Gone. No trace, other than the occasional detritus that washes up to shore (sneakers, rubber ducks, Lego, cigarettes). But there’s a transformation underway, and it will impact everything from commercial shipping to illegal fishing to the well-being of our oceans.

Which brings me to CubeSats. I spoke with Peter Platzer, CEO of Spire last month. Last time I spoke to him was in 2013, when his company was called something else and we were discussing the extension of the Internet of Things into space. It was my first introduction to “CubeSats,” which are about the size of a box of tissues. Spire now has a European HQ in Glasgow, of all places, and its cube sats are gathering data and tracking what happens out in the ocean every minute. The Live ship map, an existing tracking tool on marinetraffic.com is fascinating, but its not really real time. The open ocean data on this map only updates every 6-12 hours. Imagine if we could have real time images of every ship on the planet, where it’s going, how fast, what it’s carrying. In our connected world, it’s odd to think we didn’t have that already.

I’ve also been learning about another CubeSat company, Planet Labs. It is focused on what’s happening on land, with the goal of ultimately being a scanner for the planet that can image every part of the planet’s land mass, every day! This provides data relevant to everything from climate change and crop yields to commodities trading and urban infrastructure.

Both of these companies are changing not just the way we get access to information about what’s happening on the surface of our planet—from cities to forests to the middle of nowhere—but the frequency at which we get that information.

So on to drones. Oddly, I’ve been to a couple of drone related events in the past month or so. One was the launch of the Drone Racing League (DRL). And the other was the launch of DJI’s Phantom 4. I’ve never tried to fly a drone. Playing around with the one tethered to a station at DRL’s launch doesn’t count. Usually when I’m thinking about drones, it’s in the context of less leisurely pursuits like their application in agriculture, parcel delivery, surveying, search and rescue, or war, and how that intersects with the interests of government.

Now, instead of thinking about the FAA and drone regulation (here’s a link to drone policy expert Lisa Ellman’s TE Policy talk) I’m recalling the odd rush of adrenaline you can get watching other people race drones – you’re not even racing them yourself! Think of it as miniature NASCAR, but in the air, combined with video gaming, but on large neon lit course. The DRL’s first race, Miami Lights, was Feb. 22 at the Sun Life stadium. As for the Phantom 4, it’s an amazing flying camera that you barely need to fly (does that takes the fun out of it?). You can just tap a screen and it goes off, following its subject, avoiding obstacles. If I was a good enough skier to gracefully descend a couloir I would buy one to film myself. Or perhaps, part of it being your “creative companion” is the fact that the sweeping aerial shot it takes would film and frame me as I should be skiing as opposed to how I really do ski. I have a friend who has used his drone to film beautiful snow covered forests, he’s also crashed a bunch. He should probably get one of these.

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