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Over the last decade, we’ve entered the era of the “Space Renaissance,” a rebirth of space activities that are accelerating innovation. Agile aerospace—a philosophy of spacecraft development that encourages rapid iteration—was largely just a thought-kernel in the minds of aerospace experts 10 years ago, and now it’s an ideal that many in the space industry are striving for.
The space community has experienced a shift in behavior. A new crop of aerospace entrepreneurs have been consistently emerging with the aim of creating new low-Earth orbit missions, and commercial companies are challenging the status quo of the aerospace industry. Sure, some industry insiders quipped of another space bubble similar to the 1990s, but to me, this time it feels different—and Planet has played a strong role in this philosophical and technological shift.
In 2010, I teamed up with two of my best friends from NASA and we founded Planet. Our vision was to create a company that could use information from space to help life on Earth. We built our first satellite in our California garage with the hypothesis that we could disrupt the aerospace industry with a high performance, mass-manufacturable and autonomously-operated fleet of remote sensing satellites—and we wanted to make knowledge available to more people who might seek it.
One decade and hundreds of satellites later, that vision has become a reality. By reducing the cost to reach space by a factor of 10 and developing satellites at 1000x lower mass and cost than 10 years ago, data that once was only accessible by government entities is now available to the masses—and is being utilized daily across industries to achieve great things that were never imagined.
“Planet’s Mission One [was] to launch a fleet of satellites that would image the entire Earth every day and democratize access to [information],” said my co-founder Will Marshall in his 2018 TED Talk. “We wanted to give people the tools to see change and take action.”
Widespread bushfires (November 18, 2019, top image) in the Blue Mountains of Australia left behind a patchwork of lightly- to intensely-burned forest (December 16, 2019, right). © 2018 and 2019, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
But Planet isn’t the only force of innovation in this new and exciting era.
SpaceX, for example, started out with a small launch vehicle that was largely ignored by the established aerospace sector, and now they’re known for advancing technological capabilities. Also, SpaceX’s investment in reusability has shifted the entire space community to decrease their costs, and provided an opportunity for new small rocket companies to find a niche for dedicated small access to space.
SpaceX is just one example of a commercial, product-focused business that is building a strong commercial pillar leading toward a more secure and vibrant space environment. Bold and market-making investors have seen the value in commercial aerospace organizations, contributing billions of dollars to companies that build systems leveraging lower-cost satellites to create a distributed and diversified sensor network in space.
With the rapid innovation mindset of the Space Renaissance taking hold, the success of Planet’s aerospace innovation is no mystery. Satellites of the past were school bus-sized, costly and took a long time to test and build; they were also often in space for so many years that their technology rapidly became outdated. Small satellites are much less expensive and therefore business models can incorporate rapid iterations. Thus, there’s been continued support for companies like Planet that inspire evolution and growth.
Additionally, a lot of progress has been made by innovators in the space industry who are building businesses with commercial business models. Leveraging investments from major technology companies in cloud computing, computer vision and machine learning—space-enabled businesses are using these commoditized and open source technologies to build cost-effective products delivering business value quickly. Applying these technologies and processes to remote sensing further decreases the barrier to entry for a non-remote sensing expert to extract insights within geospatial data.
The above image is a map of carbon stores in Peru’s tropical forests. Arizona State University scientists used a combination of machine learning, LiDAR and Planet’s data to measure and map forest carbon across Peru. Check out our Planet Insight to delve deeper into the research. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
At Planet, we have leveraged these advancements to follow a path that goes beyond the traditional remote sensing and Earth observation sector, to purposely create our products as subscriptions. This makes it easier for commercial, non-remote sensing customers to gain the decision advantage as geospatial intelligence grows the addressable market and follows commercial trends to deliver tools at the speed of business.
Outside of a commercial enterprise sector, the growing support of government entities has also been particularly notable. Because the government has policies in place that allow for change and growth in the aerospace industry, it has allowed them to be open to becoming customers and buying commercial subscription products. Planet has partnered with such entities as the United Nations, NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial Agency, the State of California and more.
Governments have been the driving force behind space activities since the first satellite went up; and today, many governments are embracing this Space Renaissance and shifting toward buying a subscription service that has built-in upgrades every year.
Construction on housing for Rohingya refugees nears completion on Bhasan Char Island, Bangladesh. © 2019, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
So far, the uses of our products have been ample and far-ranging. Customers have utilized Planet’s imagery for everything from visualizing the growth of refugee camps; alerting local authorities of illegal gold mining in the Amazon; tracking illegal fishing; aiding communities impacted by the Palu earthquake and Hurricane Matthew; tracking missile activity; flood monitoring in the Republic of the Congo; the list goes on.
Data of this kind, and at this scale, has never existed before—and more people are becoming educated on the technology’s importance and historical significance. Our ecosystems are changing, the cities are growing, supply chains are global, extreme weather is increasing, and our clean air and fresh water commons are under threat. The global community needs to take action to create a sustainable tomorrow, and our data and tools can contribute to that positive change.
After all that has been achieved in the last decade, it’s exciting to imagine what new innovations and ideas await us. The remote sensing sector will enable a new level of global transparency, which will allow governments to anticipate activities leading to deescalation of conflict. It will also allow civil society to understand the state of the world based on unbiased facts and will help businesses to modify activities to increase efficiency, deploy new services and embrace their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) responsibility in the coming years. Together we will become greater stewards of the planet. And as we fly into the future, Planet’s goal is to continue to iterate, evolve and get our products into the hands of many.