The Public Will Soon Be Able to Buy Military-Grade Satellite Images

The view from space is about to get a lot clearer for the public. And that’s a good thing for the military.

National Journal
Aug. 14, 2014, 10:32 a.m.

On Wed­nes­day, the world’s premi­er mar­keter of high-res­ol­u­tion satel­lite im­agery, Di­git­al­Globe, suc­cess­fully launched their new World­View 3 (WV3) satel­lite. As De­fense One re­por­ted in April, the World­View 3 will op­er­ate 380 miles above the Earth’s sur­face and will go from pole to pole in 98 minutes, mov­ing at 7 miles per second.

Who will buy the im­agery?

Di­git­al­Globe’s num­ber one cli­ent re­mains the gov­ern­ment, and the largest gov­ern­ment cli­ent is the Na­tion­al GeoIn­tel­li­gence Agency, NGA, which gave the com­pany $32.3 mil­lion in the second quarter of this year. But Di­git­al­Globe sells their ser­vices to oth­er bod­ies like NATO to help track Rus­si­an troop move­ments on the Ukrain­i­an Bor­der, and to Google for use with Google Maps. Di­git­al­Globe’s im­age archive is the best on the plan­et with enough pic­tures to show every corner of the Earth 30 times over.

The satel­lite uses a short­wave in­frared sensor to see through haze, dust and smoke to tell you things like how moist the soil is that you’re look­ing at. The WV3 can identi­fy min­er­als, dif­fer­en­ti­ate between tree spe­cies””even help de­term­ine the health of trees. The im­ages them­selves are also pin-point ac­cur­ate on a map, with each pixel as­signed its own lat­it­ude and lon­git­ude num­ber.

The new satel­lite’s most im­port­ant fea­ture is its 30-cen­ti­meter res­ol­u­tion, which would “al­low you to see not only a car, but the wind­shield and the dir­ec­tion the car is go­ing. Something as small as home plate,” ac­cord­ing to the com­pany.

While that 30-cen­ti­meter res­ol­u­tion isn’t suf­fi­cient to do com­pu­ter­ized fa­cial re­cog­ni­tion from space””de­pend­ing on the light, the angle and the ana­lyst, pic­tures at that scale could help pos­it­ively identi­fy Rus­si­an mil­it­ary com­mand­ers op­er­at­ing in Ukraine. Or it could help il­lu­mine ISIL lead­ers like Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi. The U.S. mil­it­ary has a big in­terest in what’s called “non-per­missive data col­lec­tion,” which really means the col­lec­tion of data about a sub­ject without the sub­ject’s know­ledge

Pri­or to this year, the gov­ern­ment didn’t want the pub­lic to have ac­cess to pic­tures from space at that level of de­tail, for­cing Di­git­al­Globe to de­grade the im­ages that they were selling to a res­ol­u­tion of half a meter. In May of last year, Di­git­al Globe pe­ti­tioned the Na­tion­al Ocean­ic and At­mo­spher­ic Ad­min­is­tra­tion to free them up to sell im­agery as at a high­er res­ol­u­tion at open mar­kets.

With little no­tice or fan­fare, they won. On June 11th, the com­pany is­sued a re­lease stat­ing that the gov­ern­ment would al­low them to sell im­ages at a res­ol­u­tion as de­tailed 25 cen­ti­meters start­ing six months from Wed­nes­day’s launch.

It’s not””on the one hand””bad news for the U.S. that non-per­missive data col­lec­tion from space is now much more open to the pub­lic. As Joseph Marks re­ports in a piece for De­fense One sis­ter site Nex­t­Gov, by open­ing up the im­ages for pub­lic pur­chase, the price drops and that means that the gov­ern­ment will be able to buy a lot more im­agery at lower cost. (As pre­vi­ously re­por­ted the com­pany charges a min­im­um or­der of 100 square kilo­met­ers at $4000.) But on the oth­er hand, it also means that the abil­ity to see a base­ball plate, li­cense plate, or pos­sibly a face from 380 miles above the Earth’s sur­face has sud­denly be­come much less of an ex­clus­ive, elite cap­ab­il­ity.

Di­git­al­Globe is pro­hib­ited from selling high-res­ol­u­tion satel­lite im­ages if the sale presents a na­tion­al se­cur­ity threat or for­eign policy con­cern. When a po­ten­tial cli­ent makes con­tact, the com­pany has to vet the per­son against a list of known ter­ror­ists. The U.S. gov­ern­ment re­tains the right to im­pose “shut­ter con­trol” at any time. But they’ve nev­er had to ac­cord­ing to Di­git­al­GlobeCTO Wal­ter Scott. The com­pany self-mon­it­ors what pic­tures they sell and to whom. For in­stance, they sold no im­ages of sens­it­ive areas in Ir­aq dur­ing op­er­a­tion Ir­aqi Free­dom.

It’s an amaz­ing new tool but that doesn’t mean the pub­lic will use it. Up­start com­pan­ies selling mi­crosatel­lites at much lower cost are giv­ing Di­git­al­Globe some very ser­i­ous com­pet­i­tion. A com­pany out of Cali­for­nia called Plan­et Labs cur­rently op­er­ates the largest con­stel­la­tion of earth-ima­ging satel­lites, 28 so-called Dove mi­crosatel­lites, which the com­pany put in­to or­bit near the start of the year. Oth­ers, like Sky­Box, Kick­Stat and SkyCube, etc. are all find­ing strange niches and fund­ing in a rap­idly grow­ing mar­ket­place. None of these satel­lites can of­fer the sort of im­ages that the WV3 can (many don’t take pic­tures at all), but they do serve as an in­dic­a­tion of how quickly the cost of space ac­cess is drop­ping.

A former in­tel­li­gence ana­lyst speak­ing toDe­fense One ques­tioned wheth­er or not the cost of a satel­lite like WV jus­ti­fied the value that cus­tom­ers would get it out it, giv­en the rising com­pet­i­tion. “I really think the is­sue is the very com­plex, ex­tremely ex­pens­ive, big satel­lites go­ing up against the Sky­boxes of the world,” he said. “The up­side will be if the mil­it­ary is heav­ily task­ing US as­sets on a spe­cif­ic part of the world, an­oth­er cap­able satel­lite could provide cov­er­age of oth­er areas.”

There’s a fun­da­ment­al shift oc­cur­ring in the satel­lite im­agery mar­ket and that could put more pres­sure on Di­git­al­Globe, the ana­lyst said. “The only way [Di­git­al­Globe] can make money is from the ana­lyt­ic­al side. Im­agery has be­come a com­mod­ity.”

Ana­lyt­ics, as a product, is also grow­ing faster in sup­ply than in de­mand. Spa­tial ana­lys­is firms like ESRI, based in Red­lands, Cal­if., con­nect map­makers around the world through the com­pany’s Ar­c­GIS.com plat­form, en­abling gov­ern­ments, com­pan­ies, re­search­ers and act­iv­ists to share lots of geo-spe­cif­ic in­form­a­tion and satel­lite data in re­al­time. That in­cludes everything from wa­ter table maps, to geo-spe­cif­ic his­tor­ies, to leg­al bound­ar­ies. Sky­box, too, is mar­ket­ing its own satel­lite ana­lyt­ics ser­vice, while aca­dem­ic groups like Har­vard’s Satel­lite Sen­tinel Pro­ject use open-source sat in­form­a­tion to pre­dict geo­pol­it­ic­al events with a speed and an ac­cur­acy that used to be the sole province of gov­ern­ments.

For con­sumers in the De­fense De­part­ment and bey­ond, the com­pet­i­tion is a good thing. The gov­ern­ment will need to rely much more on the private sec­tor to get its satel­lites in­to space, provide com­mu­nic­a­tions to drones and, of course, to send pic­tures down to Earth. And so will the rest of us. The view from 380 miles up just got a lot clear­er.

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