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Global Tech Security & Privacy

Watching Walmart Parking Lots from Space: New Apps for Satellites

Skybox Imaging mini-fridge-sized satellites sit in the company's clean room.

Skybox Imaging mini-fridge-sized satellites sit in the company’s clean room.

Here’s a new barometer for measuring a technology’s disruptive potential: “If there’s not a capacity to exploit something for evil, it’s probably not that revolutionary.” That’s one way 27-year-old Skybox Imaging co-founder Julian Mann explains to the Atlantic this week the transformative uses for the 200-pound, mini-fridge-sized satellites that his company intends to start launching into orbit next month.

With NSA surveillance activity front of mind, nefarious uses for private satellites are easy to imagine. But Mann and his three Skybox co-founders in Mountain View, Calif., are building their business around societally and financially beneficial applications for “big data from small satellites.” Those include monitoring the pace of spreading forest fires, detecting road closures after earthquakes, watching global crop growth, “gleaning a country’s consumption from images showing the number of cars in every one of its Walmart parking lots,” and observing the journeys of oil tankers; which ports they visit is valuable information to oil futures investors.

Integrated and analyzed, images from the satellites could wield “economically predictive power that could yield fortunes and prevent collapses,” the Atlantic’s Nate Hindman and Joe Epstein report. They add:

“A Skybox-like business model is a relatively new idea for the commercial space-based imaging industry, now pegged at roughly $2.3 billion a year. The tiny number of companies that currently sell pictures from space rely on government contracts for around 80 percent of their revenue, according to Mann.”

Besides, at $500 million each, satellites that are out there already aren’t practical or accessible to the customers Skybox is targeting with devices that cost one-tenth that. The company aims to put 24 light and affordable satellites into orbit by 2018.

Another commercial satellite industry pioneer, NanoSatisfi CEO Peter Platzer, described the difference between their own nanosatellites, known as CubeSats, and old satellites at the TE Lab in Menlo Park in May, and recently said his company will lease access to “a whole constellation of nanosatellites.”

The Skybox value-add is its software, “which stitches together strings of lower res images into one visualization” that can be delivered within hours directly to customers’ email inboxes. That’s a drastic difference from current satellite imagery offerings: huge high-res files that “require $20,000 worth of software to open and can take weeks or even months to deliver,” the Atlantic reports. The five year old company is operating with $91 million from investors including Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Ventures, Canaan Partners, and Norwest Venture Partners.

Not that Skybox has the market sewn up. Equipment failure, clouds (of the meteorological variety), and paranoia-stoked government policies are all potential obstacles to smooth operations. But Mann is planning for greatness. He tells the Atlantic, “If you look at companies that truly transformed industries, they’re the ones that facilitated a new level of access.”

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