Summer  >>  2012  

Business Uses of Satellite Imagery

Astrium's Geo-Information Services and DigitalGlobe

Fig. 1

Image from Astrium’s Pléiades satellite of an oil field in South Argentina, taken Mar. 2, 2012. Image courtesy of CNES and Astrium Services.

Fig. 2

WorldView-2 image of El Chino mine in New Mexico, taken Dec. 9, 2010. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

Fig. 3

Solucar Towers in Seville, Spain image taken Mar. 1, 2011 by WorldView-2. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.

Fig. 4

Pléaides satellite image of crop circles from circular sprinkler systems in Texas, taken Jan. 27, 2012. Image courtesy of CNES and Astrium Services.

Contributing Writer
Pale Blue Dot LLC
Portland, Ore.

The public is familiar with satellite imagery through consumer applications — most notably, Google Earth. GeoEye (Herndon, Va.) and DigitalGlobe (Longmont, Colo.) sell their imagery mostly to government agencies. However, there is also a market for business applications of satellite imagery — such as monitoring agricultural production over large areas, counting cars in the parking lots of department stores, or identifying suitable locations for installing solar panels. They constitute a substantial portion of the sales of satellite imagery by DigitalGlobe, GeoEye and Astrium (based in Toulouse, France, with Astrium GEO-Information Services North America based in Chantilly, Va.).

Astrium GEO-Information Services (a subsidiary of EADS with offices worldwide) specializes in Earth observation and navigation services. About half of the sales by its GEO-Information division are to governments, including defense, intelligence, and federal, state and local governments, according to Nicolas Stussi, the company’s director of business development in North America. The other half, he says, are to businesses — mainly oil and gas and agriculture, but also Web mapping, locationbased services (LBS), and other emerging technologies. However, in the United States and Canada, the government share of the company’s sales is closer to 70 percent. Astrium does not currently have a major focus on sales to consumers, but it is pursuing opportunities on a case by case basis, through partners. DigitalGlobe gets roughly 60 percent of revenue from its work with the U.S. government and the balance from a combination of international civil government, LBS, and other verticals, according to Aaron Crane, the company’s vice president of product management.

From Delivering Pixels to Delivering Service

Large, global enterprises, such as mining and oil and gas companies, rely increasingly on satellite imagery — for example, to perform environmental impact analyses for particular operations or to monitor their assets, such as equipment and buildings, especially in remote locations. “We’re seeing mining pick up globally,” says Crane. “Satellites are global. Therefore, global businesses, which need to have knowledge somewhat centrally about global events, lend themselves to us.”

Oil and gas has always been a key market for Astrium, Stussi says — especially projects such as monitoring pipelines and offshore platforms, using medium-resolution imagery. The new trend in this market is the use of data as part of services. “We are all moving away from, essentially, delivering pixels because there are so much data out there that I think the differentiator now is on the service-level agreement you can offer to your customer using your contents. We have full control of the contents and now we can develop dissemination systems around our content to deliver these services. So that’s really where we make the difference.”

For example, an oil and gas company might ask Astrium to monitor an oil platform in a very remote area that would be very expensive to monitor by sending people on the ground. It would want to know whether satellite imagery could provide the information it required and would need Astrium to guarantee that it could provide that information reliably. “We deliver change detection maps or reports at the end of the day over given areas and it’s almost irrelevant, from their perspective, what type of imagery we are using to deliver that information,” Stussi said. See Figure 1.

Astrium has been expanding this type of service with its Pléiades satellite, which has a 50-centimeter resolution and a footprint of 20 x 20 kilometers, with its constellation of SPOT satellites and with its synthetic aperture radar (SAR) TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X satellites. It launched Pléiades 1A in December 2011 and is scheduled to launch Pléiades 1B later this year.

Other satellite imagery companies’ images are used for energy as well, from oil and gas to mining, solar and wind. See Figures 2 and 3.

Agriculture has long been Astrium’s largest market segment, because it has had enough assets to provide the large, repetitive coverage required. The key element to be successful on the agriculture market, Stussi explains, is not the resolution, the number of spectral bands, the revisit time, or even the number of satellites, but the ability to deliver data reliably, within 24 hours of collection, and in a form that is usable by the end customer. See Figure 4.

Business Intelligence

The use of satellite imagery for business intelligence is growing. For example, shopping malls and big box stores want to know how much traffic they get, day in and day out, over a period of months, so that they can correlate these data with their advertising campaigns and other promotional activities. They also want to monitor their competition’s traffic. To do this, they can count the cars in their own parking lots and in their competitors’ much more quickly and cheaply by using satellite imagery than by deploying people on the ground, provided that the revisit rate is sufficiently high. Pléiades allows Astrium to address this need, says Stussi.

Location-Based Services

An emerging market for satellite imagery is LBS, which is constantly hungry for content. “We include in the LBS sector the map makers, the companies that are actually building maps using our information,” says Crane. For example, he points out, Nokia’s Location and Commerce business unit creates its maps by overlaying vector data on top of DigitalGlobe’s imagery.

Pléiades will also address the LBS market very well, Stussi says, because, typically, it requires very high resolution imagery. However, SPOT imagery at 2.5-meter and 5-meter resolution is sometimes also very useful for LBS applications, he points out, because it allows much greater coverage to fit in the memory of mobile devices for use in disconnected environments (i.e., where they do not have network access).

Planning Cellular Towers

Another vertical segment with significant growth potential is planning the locations of cellular towers. For the development of next generation LTE or 4G networks, the exact location of towers in urban areas is even more critical than it was for 3G networks, Crane explains. This requires very good data on land use and topography, as well as high-resolution imagery that network designers can use to make location decisions without having to visit each possible site.

Aerial Imagery

In addition to its satellite imagery, DigitalGlobe also has aerial imagery that it has worked with Microsoft to collect.

In July, it will complete its coverage of the continental United States, wall-to-wall, at 30-centimeter coverage, RGB and nearinfrared, says Crane. “We have this unique dataset that is really quite powerful. As part of that collection, we also collected, at a slightly lower resolution, stereo panchromatic data, with which we can also create surface models of the United States. We are doing the exact same wall-to-wall collection for Western Europe and it will complete a little bit later this year, probably in October.”

This aerial imagery, Crane explains, will enable the creation of 3D terrain models as well as inspect what is on the ground and measure the sizes and angles of roofs. This, for example, will allow companies that sell or install solar panels to identify suitable houses without having to visit them individually.

Insurance Companies

Insurance companies are also interested in gathering such information as the square footage of rooftops and typically engage outside contractors to provide it, says Crane. “We can provide the latest imagery of a particular event — like an unfortunate tornado, hurricane, landslide, or earthquake. Often, we can get our first images of some kind of crisis within 24 hours. That’s faster than you can scramble planes.” This imagery helps insurance companies to quickly determine which properties were hit by the disaster, and therefore clearly qualify for coverage, and which were outside of the disaster area, and therefore where to require an inspection to verify a claim. Additionally, the imagery helps insurance companies with the logistics of emergency response, when they have to deploy staff to disaster sites, Crane explains. For example, it can help them decide where to park their vehicles and where to deliver supplies.

3D Last year, DigitalGlobe began to deliver its data in elevation format.

“Our satellites are capable of capturing different viewpoints of the same location,” Crane explains. “We can use them with fairly standard photogrammetric techniques to create digital surface models and from that, to create a digital terrain model.” By repeating this type of modeling on more than one frequency, it is possible to measure changes in volume. Therefore, users of this service include mining companies that want to monitor the size of their open pit mines. The launch of DigitalGlobe’s World-View satellites greatly increased the amount of high-resolution multispectral coverage. “All our satellites — World-View-1, WorldView-2, and QuickBird — can do the stereo collection, but it’s very easy to purpose WorldView-1 for large amounts of stereo collection and then build 3-dimensional models from those collects,” says Crane. “We are starting to see more growth in this sector.”

Competitive Advantage “Astrium is and will remain the only data provider today that has a full spectrum of assets, from mid-res view to high-res view and SAR, and I think that is really unique in the marketplace,” says Stussi. “If we want to be successful in services, the best way is to be able to control the content.” Astrium will soon have seven satellites it can use to provide these services. “It is going to be the first time that so many resources will be available and accessible for commercial companies to tap into.”

DigitalGlobe’s set of sensors differs from those of other satellite companies, Crane points out. Its 8-band sensor is particularly useful for environmental monitoring and land classification. “The WorldView-3 satellite will have an additional eight bands in the shortwave infrared range. We have panchromatic, eight multispectral and eight shortwave infrared bands, which provide the first super-spectral satellite — it is both hyper-spectral and it is high resolution. With those bands, there are a bunch of applications in mining and in oil and gas exploration that we expect to support in the coming years, once WorldView-3 is launched.”

Astrium, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye all are gaining strongholds with enterprise customers, mostly in ag, insurance, energy and LBS. These industries are very important to their growth and long-term sustainability. While we did not cover GeoEye in this article (see page 30 for an article about the solar power industry), all three offer unique solutions for their enterprise clients.

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