Winter  >>  2010  

At the Tipping Point

How DigitalGlobe’s Latest Satellite Launch is Breaking Down Barriers

By Chuck Herring
Director of Marketing
Longmont, Colo.

A decade ago, the world watched with amazement as the first commercialhigh-resolution satellite launched. The launch promised to open up the world – and its governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals – to a whole new “view” of the earth, enabling new technologies and offering a new level of insight into our surroundings. In the ten years since that launch, the industry has delivered on that promise, showcasing just what is possible with satellite imagery. We have learned that satellite imagery is a game-changing innovation that can provide value unknown before its advent, value beyond that of words and numbers, ultimately changing the way we make decisions.

Today, following the October launch of WorldView-2, DigitalGlobe’s latest high-resolution satellite, the industry sits at a tipping point. No longer is it a question of whether an image is available or whether it is current. High-resolution, accurate, and current imagery is available in larger quantities than ever before. But being able to access imagery is no longer enough; now, unlocking the true value of the imagery so that it can tell a meaningful, relevant story has become the driver that is pushing imagery beyond its bounds.

WorldView-2: In a Class of its Own

On October 8, 2009, WorldView-2 joined its sister satellites, WorldView-1 and QuickBird, in orbit. Ninety days later, on January 4, 2010, WorldView-2 achieved full operational capability – right on schedule. On its own, WorldView-2 is a feat of innovation, offering a unique combination of large collection capacity, high spatial resolution and 8-band spectral diversity.

WorldView-2’s large-area collection capabilities and rapid retargeting are two important pieces to the puzzle. WorldView-2’s immense collection capacity and near daily revisit capabilities offer an improved assurance in the availability of current, relevant imagery. Enabled by the combination of the satellite’s 770-km orbiting altitude, its state-of-the-art Control Moment Gyroscopes (CMGs) and bi-directional push-broom sensors, WorldView-2’s enhanced agility and bi-directional scanning allows for the collection of over 10,000 sq km in a single overhead pass, plus efficient in-track stereo collections of over 5,000 sq km.

Collection capacity, of course, is only as good as the imagery collected. Panchromatic resolution is 46 cm. (Distribution and use of imagery at better than .50 m GSD pan and 2.0 m GSD multispectral is subject to prior approval by the U.S. Government.) WorldView-2’s advanced geopositional technology provides significant improvements in accuracy as well. The accuracy specification has been tightened to 6.5m CE90 right off the satellite, meaning no processing, no elevation model and no ground control, and measured accuracy is expected to be approximately 4m CE90. (CE90 is “circular error of 90%,” which is the minimum diameter of the horizontal circle that can be centered on all photo-identifiable Ground Control Points (GCPs) and images that are CE90 also contain 90% of their respective twin counterparts acquired in an independent geodetic survey.)

As the first high-resolution commercial satellite to provide eight spectral bands, WorldView-2 offers imagery with a high degree of detail, unlocking a finer level of analytical discernment that enables improved decision-making. In addition to industry-standard blue, green, red and near-infrared, WorldView-2 includes four previously unavailable bands, collected at 1.8 meter resolution: coastal blue, yellow, red edge and near-infrared 2. These bands offer a range of benefits to analysts, who will be able to identify broader ranges of classification, (e.g., more varieties of vegetation or water penetrated objects), to extract more features (e.g., cotton-based camouflage from natural ground cover), to view a truer representation of colors that match to natural human vision, and to track coastal changes and infractions.

Joining The Constellation

Of course this isn’t a story of a lone satellite orbiting the earth. When it launched, WorldView-2 joined two additional high-resolution satellites from DigitalGlobe, WorldView-1 and QuickBird. With its high collection capacity, WorldView-2’s launch doubled DigitalGlobe’s collection capacity and offered intraday revisit. With an ImageLibrary that already houses more than 815 million sq km of imagery (as of December 2009), the new capacity of the constellation will allow DigitalGlobe to map the entire globe at least once each year, in essence eliminating the question of whether or not a timely, relevant image is available.

Unlocking A New World View

As imagery becomes ubiquitous, more and more industries have discovered the value it can offer. Today, imagery drives decision-making across a wide range of situations. Warfighters rely on current imagery to illuminate safe routes in dangerous areas. Relief workers turn to imagery to view the impact of natural disasters. Scientists look to imagery to understand the extent of coastal erosion. Travelers rely on imagery to navigate a foreign city. In each of these cases, the value is not the imagery on its own, but the information that it can provide that makes the difference. Thus, while access to current, accurate imagery is important, equally important is how it is accessed and used.

Until recently, unlocking the value of imagery has proven both complex and time consuming. Imagery is still too much in its infancy to have addressed standard formats, and thus, each user has been dependent on expert analysts to process and format any imagery to the specific requirements of any given situation. Digital-Globe is working to make imagery more consumable – removing the barriers to entry as it offers imagery faster, better, and more easily.

We live in a world where time is the new currency, whether you are that war-fighter making life and death decisions or that traveler in a new city simply trying to get to a meeting on time. Our society dictates speed; waiting days or weeks for intelligence is no longer an option.

We have established that the imagery is available – but how quickly can it be accessed and does it become usable? Digital-Globe has developed a series of web services that eliminates the need for in-house processing expertise, reduces costly storage requirements, and allows users to embed imagery directly into geospatial applications. Through this platform, customers can search for imagery, access imagery in a range of compressed and uncompressed formats that can be integrated into geospatial applications, and integrate imagery with additional data. Anyone can be an expert, opening the doors of imagery to a whole new group of users.

DigitalGlobe has used its web services to provide valuable services that address the timeliness of data. Through the “Rapid Delivery of Online Geospatial-Intelligence” (RDOG) program, DigitalGlobe is providing the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) with unclassified imagery-derived products and services for its imagery and map-based intelligence solutions aimed at the U.S. national defense, homeland security and safety of navigation.

Let’s return to that warfighter looking for safe routes for his convoy. What if that warfighter were able to get current imagery immediately rather than waiting days, if not weeks, or rather than relying on out-of-date imagery? It could mean significant time – or even lives – saved.

Enabling near real-time access to daily image collections, DigitalGlobe’s Web services offer rapid dissemination of the latest NextView-licensed imagery of specified areas to the National System for GEOINT (NSG) within 24 hours of collection. In addition to delivering commercial imagery via web mapping services (WMS), DigitalGlobe also provides a nearly cloud-free foundation layer of tonally balanced, country-wide, one-degree geo-cells on a new quarterly collection schedule.

Looking Ahead

With more to view than ever before, imagery is the here and now, shifting the way we live and work, informing our decisions and offering new insight into all that we do. Importantly, advancements and innovation in how we use imagery have changed the economics in a way that makes imagery accessible to a wider audience achieving a significant range of results. We are indeed at a tipping point.

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