Do Those Commercial Satellites Just Provide Internet? Maybe Not

July 12, 2020

Much has changed since the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, not the least of which is the state of observation technology. We learn from Bloomberg that “Satellites Are Capturing the Protests, and Just About Everything Else on Earth.” Satellite-captured images of protests pervade recent news coverage, particularly a photo of D.C.’s yellow “Black Lives Matter” street mural captured by Planet Labs, Inc. This company, founded in 2010, brings satellite imagery to the masses. Journalist Ashlee Vance reports:

“The company that took the photo, Planet Labs Inc., has hundreds of satellites floating around Earth, enough that it can snap at least one photo of every spot on the planet every day, according to the startup. Such imagery used to be rare, expensive and controlled by governments. Now, Planet has built what amounts to a real-time accounting system of the earth that just about anyone can access by paying a fee.

Over the next couple months, Planet is embarking on a project that will dramatically increase the number of photos it takes and improve the quality of the images by 25% in terms of resolution. To do that, the company is lowering the orbits of some of its larger, high-resolution satellites and launching a half-dozen more devices. As a result, Planet will go from photographing locations twice a day to as many as 12 times a day in some places. Customers will also be able to aim the satellites where they want using an automated system developed by Planet. ‘The schedule is shipped to the satellite, and it knows the plan it needs to follow,’ said Jim Thomason, the vice president of products at Planet.”

The implications are both amazing and alarming. The very concept of privacy may become hypothetical when anyone willing to pay can see just about anything and anyone, anywhere, at nearly any time. On the other hand, there are more benign possibilities, like the investors who examine parking lots to determine how lucrative certain retail businesses are. And, of course, there is the ability to chronicle a large scale social-justice movement. During the Covid-19 pandemic, analysts have also used satellite imagery to track activity slowdowns, military activity, and shipments of goods.

Planet Labs is not the only private company in the satellite imagery market. Rivals include Capella Space and Iceye. As the competition heats up, how many more objects will be placed into orbit around our planet? As I recall, we already have too much stuff flying around out there. I suppose, though, that concern is beyond the purview of companies looking to cash in on the technology.

Cynthia Murrell, July 12, 2020


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