Seeing Earth from space: The power of satellite images

| Interview

“When you have satellites in space, you can take a picture anywhere in the world, not just in your backyard or region, at any time—and that ability is quite profound and extraordinary,” says Robbie Schingler, cofounder and chief strategy officer of satellite-data company Planet Labs. Schingler sees the company as an agent for “democratizing access to information.” Its network of nearly 200 satellites takes pictures of Earth daily and has captured more than 1,500 high-resolution images of every part of Earth’s land mass since 2017.

Across industries, the information mined from satellite images is already transforming how people work. Consider just a few examples: farmers are improving crop yields by getting clues about disease, pests, and nutrient deficiencies in their fields; governments are gaining insights into forests and vegetation to help them better prevent wildfires; and scientists are monitoring changes to Arctic rivers and glaciers by comparing historical images with current ones.

As cloud computing, AI, and other technologies continue to advance, Schingler believes that satellite imaging will deliver even deeper insights. McKinsey’s Chris Daehnick recently spoke with Schingler about the growing trove of satellite data and its future applications. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

A trillion-dollar space economy?

Chris Daehnick: I’ve heard you say that Planet has more than 600 customers around the world. What sorts of insights are Planet’s customers getting from satellite data?

Robbie Schingler: Our customers come from many industries, from agriculture to oil and gas, as well as from commodity trading and government—civil, defense, and intelligence agencies. We are constantly surprised by what our users do with our data. Some of the most surprising things are coming from academic organizations. For instance, researchers thought that a glacial burst, causing a landslide, had occurred in the mountains of India. We are always collecting data, and we had images of the area taken at 30-minute intervals. Looking at them, researchers could tell exactly what changes in the landscape happened over time. Such information can help people understand both risks and preparative measures. We can learn about indicators and warnings and then do something about them.

There are a lot of examples from agriculture, which is our largest market. By adding our data to agriculture platforms, farmers can understand when they should cultivate certain crops, how much fertilizer to apply, and what types of crops are growing. The data also helps them understand supply-chain issues. One agricultural customer increased crop productivity by 10 percent by monitoring its entire growing area. That’s huge in a commodity market.

Chris Daehnick: People in the space business used to say, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” A lot of private money is flowing into space-related businesses right now. Your own company, for example, just went public via a special-purpose-acquisition-company merger. Do you think this trend will last? Or are we in a “frothy” environment?

Robbie Schingler: We’ve heard analysts predict a trillion-dollar space economy, with some estimates going up to $3 trillion. It’s phenomenal and it’s exciting—but let’s also have some realism. The businesses that are going to drive the trillion-dollar space economy are those that have a product or service that appeals to many, many users.

Many opportunities will arise because infrastructure that was once present only on Earth is now going into space. We see that with telecommunications—that trend started in the late 1990s, but what’s different today is that companies are already thinking about how to get hundreds of millions of subscribers when developing their business models. That said, I do think it is quite frothy right now. I bet we will see some consolidation in the space industry, with some companies breaking out.

This is a new-frontier economy. Space was once something that only the public sector could do, but with today’s technology and entrepreneurs, that’s no longer the case. Governments are also recognizing that space products and services have matured. They can see that the industrial base is growing quite substantially, often by bringing in technologies from other sectors, and they want to encourage this shift. The interweaving between the commercial and government sectors will be pivotal; we need to have deep, trust-based, long-term partnerships between the public and private sectors. Governments can also help the space industry by taking steps to shape the market, such as issuing regulations and being really good enterprise customers.

The future of space: It’s getting crowded out there

The future of space: It’s getting crowded out there

Picturing space in 2030

Chris Daehnick: Say more about the technologies that are advancing the space industry. What technological breakthroughs have we seen recently, and what can we expect in the next decade or two?

Robbie Schingler: A couple of unique technologies have made space ventures more possible. One is reusable rockets—something that the industry has been trying to do for a long time. Hats off to the thousands of people at SpaceX who have made that happen. It’s almost like the four-minute mile was run. Many companies are now using reusable rockets in their architecture.

On the tech side, cloud computing is allowing companies to create better machine-learning models, and we’re beginning to see edge computing and the Internet of Things everywhere, with sensors all over the planet and in space. So the technologies that are changing the economy on Earth are also changing the space economy.

Chris Daehnick: What sorts of economic activity do you think we’ll see in space in 2030?

Robbie Schingler: I think our economy will actually include “near space.” GPS and positioning, navigation, and timing technology are now ubiquitous. I think that in the next ten years, satellites that take the pulse of the planet will be used for applications that help people on Earth make sense of things, so that we’re not surprised, we understand risk, and we get closer to a true-cost global economy. That’s something I’m incredibly passionate about.

There will also be regular space travel, without a doubt. We will have more humans land on the moon, and I think that we will have a base or two there. And I bet that we will identify life—it could be a spectral signature of something that shows organic capabilities or the potential for organic capabilities. We might also find life in some of the water worlds in our solar system.

Sustainability on Earth and in space

Chris Daehnick: With more private companies getting into space ventures, space—in particular, low-Earth orbit—will be more crowded. Do you think that will create problems for satellite operators and other space organizations?

Robbie Schingler: It’s incumbent upon operators to act responsibly because space is part of the global commons, and we have to manage this resource well. We’ll need to put some new systems in place, and the various actors should collaborate to establish rules of the road.

As more organizations venture into space, managing space debris will be a challenge. Right now, the majority of debris in orbit is a result of the first few decades of space activities. There are congested areas—mainly around 700 to 1,200 kilometers in Sun-synchronous orbit—because of space activities in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, thankfully, governments and other operators are more responsible. For instance, launch-vehicle providers ensure that their upper stages are outside congested areas. Satellite operators like Planet that design and build their own satellites design them in a way that doesn’t contribute to space debris. We design for sustainability.

Chris Daehnick: How exactly do you do that?

Robbie Schingler: There are many ways in which a company can design for sustainability and be a responsible actor, and it partly depends on where you are operating. For low-Earth orbit, for instance, you want to ensure that you fall well within the US government’s guidelines of deorbiting nonoperating satellites within 25 years. But let’s be honest: even that is not enough. We need to ensure that operators responsibly deorbit satellites that are nearing their end of life. You should design using materials that allow your satellites to disintegrate in the upper atmosphere, and you should ensure that your operational system has margins so that you’re not cutting corners.

Just like in any business on Earth, some actors in the space business will be looking to cut corners. That’s why we need regulations and rules of the road. We also need the public to know what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Chris Daehnick: Speaking of sustainability, how can companies use Planet’s satellite data to address issues related to climate change, such as extreme weather events?

Robbie Schingler: Space data can help the global community achieve some of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that the UN General Assembly has set for 2030. Of those, 13 would benefit from Earth-observation information because it provides a system for measuring, reporting, and verification that is unbiased, spatially explicit, and scientifically accurate. Earth-observation data allows policy makers, businesses, civil society, and the media to obtain a common picture of global risks and take preemptive action. Rather than just living on a changing planet, we can help it thrive. We can become planetary stewards. If we collaborate and put our minds together, we can do the extraordinary.

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