Satellite imagery is a booming staple. In the last several years, with the emergence of better data collection, sharper resolution mass photography and the burgeoning population of low-earth orbit satellites, companies from several industries are finding utility in a resource that hadn’t been fully available to them before. Farmers and builders are using satellite images more, not just governments, trying to reap new benefits.
As the imaging market grows, so have the images, making it difficult to know where to get the best without a central search hub. Geocento is one British space startup that is trying to fill that void.
Founded in December 2011, the company just recently opened a second office in Spain. Their mission is clear: to better organize and enable access to prolific amounts of satellite and drone-taken images. Their search engine EarthImages provides photos from a number of suppliers from around the world. The company is working on improving their analytics capabilities while collecting as many suppliers as possible to create the biggest search engine for above-ground imagery in the world.
“We believe that we provide imagery from the most suppliers, though we’re not certain of that. The other aspect is that on the tech side of things, we’re taking efforts to develop search tools,” company co-founder and CEO Kim Partington told Geektime. “We’ve just had a contract from ESA to develop analytics tools to make it more efficient to search for imagery. We’re working with several value-added organizations making the process of feasibility assessments for their own services, finding easier ways to do that.”
The company launched in 2011 and immediately moved into the ESA BIC at Harwell as part of the incubator’s second crop of startups. They later moved down the road to the Electron Building that houses the Satellite Applications Catapult which had merged with ISIC Harwell in 2013. They’re looking to streamline services and increase suppliers, including from drone operators.
“We’ve been making use of the Catapult’s resources, using their design team, business support. It’s been extremely useful for a small company, particularly the networking.”
Geocento has public funding from the likes of Innovate UK and maintains contracts with the European Space Agency. They are still bootstrapping the difference with no definitive public schedule for venture rounds. Meanwhile, their business is moving forward with the right combination of contacts and eye on demand trends in the wider market.
A perusing of EarthImages shows you can find pictures in optical low resolution, mid resolution and very high. There are also radar images available in C, L, and X band. The price for a good shot of Tel Aviv from some point in the last 30 days? $3,217.57. But the range varies. If I type in Aleppo, Syria, I get results from December 2015 ranging from $276 to $5,266.55. Good business. But who’s buying?
The Catapult is one of Geocento’s feature customers, alongside ESA, e-geos, Taitus Software, Innovate UK, and Ipieca. They’ve licensed images from Airbus, DMCii, NSPO, ImageSat International, and SI Imaging Services (SIIS). They have over 25 million images from several individual satellites and satellite constellations with varying degrees of resolution. They include the EROS-B, the Pléiades constellation, FORMOSAT, the KOMPSAT constellation, GeoEye 1, IKONOS, the SPOT satellite mission, the LANDSAT constellation, WorldView, and more.
“We’re a broker in effect. Our view of the market is that it’s becoming increasingly fragmented and therefore there’s a need for a consolidator. At the moment we have two business models: license the technology to 3rd parties and customize it, and 2) make commissions on image sales.”
But this isn’t Partington’s first rodeo.
He ran the Earth Observations Applications Group at GEC-Marconi for an eight-year stint through 1996. He’s also a Dr. Freeze if you will, serving as chief scientist at the U.S. National Ice Center and the polar program manager at NASA. He later co-founded satellite app service Vexcel UK and polar-sensing company Polar Imaging Ltd. His current venture’s search platform is nabbing 2,000 searches a week, and not from the customers they were expecting.
The satellite industry as a whole is on the rise. The Satellite Industry Association’s annual report records $203 billion in global revenues for satellite companies in 2014, up 4% from the previous year. The bulk of that was in satellite services, followed by ground equipment, satellite manufacturing, and the launch industry in that order. Earth observation services made up about .5% of that total, but that’s still $1.6 billion and its share of the satellite economy promises to grow. And while only 14% of the 1,261 sats that were in operation at the end of 2014 were dedicated to earth observation, 51% of the 208 that were put in orbit last year were for that expressed purpose.
Kim Partington noted, “The nice thing about our platform is we get intelligence from people doing searches and a lot of inquiries, picking up a lot of small users who would otherwise be below the radar of the big players. We get some really interesting inquiries and are planning to leverage that info.”
Many are using the platform in the way a blogger might use Creative Commons: he needs a single image for a single project, but doesn’t need to leverage the platform on a consistent basis. Industries vary, with some in the agricultural sector or construction world looking for surveying tools. Those nascent markets have led them to open a second office in Spain with an eye on Latin American customers.
“We’re finding people who are from small organizations, professionals working in businesses where they need an image only occasionally that is not a routine or core part of their business,” Partington said. When asked if he saw one particular industry looking for information, he said that wasn’t the case. “It’s across the board, a lot of different types of applications, some we could never have predicted. If we can get the marketing going, we can provide some real insight into these inquiries.”