Winter  >>  2006

Whither the Remote Sensing Marketplace?

By Dr. Ray Williamson

Several years ago, remote sensing experts wondered aloud whether or not the commercial satellite remote sensing industry would survive. Starting in 1999, first Space Imaging, then DigitalGlobe, and finally OrbImage successfully launched high resolution digital sensors designed to capture the attention of what was then a very small marketplace, in which only SPOT Image was a serious player.

With four companies planning to compete for a data market of unknown size, concerns over success were justified. After all, the three U.S. companies with spacecraft in orbit had to build the market nearly from scratch. Yet, the quality and utility of the high resolution satellite imagery they were marketing proved extremely high, especially for security uses, and especially in countries that lacked national reconnaissance systems (nearly every country in the world except the United States and Russia).

Concurrent with the birth of the satellite remote sensing industry, the aerial imagery industry was undergoing a dramatic change of its own. Originally an industry dominated by mom and pop aerial photography firms, in the 1990s the aerial imagery business embraced digital technologies and now offers a wide variety of information products and services to customers who need very high resolution and coverage at particular times. For example, satellites still do not supply the timely coverage needed by many agricultural customers. U.S. cities routinely use aerial imagery for their building inventories and maps (see Imaging Notes, Fall 2005).

Interestingly, before 1999, many observers felt that satellites would take away substantial business from the aerial companies. However, as it has turned out, the metamorphosis of the aerial RS companies has created a market segment highly complementary to the satellite component.

Satellite imagery sales were helped along by increasing tensions in Afghanistan and then Iraq. In time, foreign purchases and major contracts for data (ClearView and NextView) from the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) brought growth and a measure of stability to the data market. The acquisition of Space Imaging by OrbImage (now known as GeoEye) has also further stabilized the industry.

New satellites now in production, financed in part by the NextView contract, will give the marketplace new sources of high resolution data with even higher capabilities than possible today. Further, the continued development of the complementary digital aerial imagery market will provide greater depth to the overall marketplace and likely spur customers to find new ways to use satellite data. Where the two capabilities overlap, healthy competition could assist further market development.

Overall, I see at least three hopeful trends that could boost the overall market for remotely sensed data and information products:

  1. Continued development of the aerial component, aided especially by the enhancement of highly capable, high definition digital imagers;
  2. The growth in the use of IFSAR technology, capable of piercing clouds and dark of night;
  3. Proliferation of smallsats owned and operated by numerous countries. At some level, these increasingly capable satellites will directly compete with commercial satellite systems, but they will also help to create a much larger world market for the most capable data sets because the use of indigenous RS satellites will extend the knowledge and skills needed to support the data exploitation.

Despite this relatively rosy picture, the remotely sensed data marketplace is not yet flourishing, especially in the commercial sector. Today, most data are still purchased by the federal government, and sales to local government or the private sector are highly limited. Yet, if inexpensive data applications can be found and fully exploited, the overall marketplace could expand much more than it has to date. As noted by the recent ASPRS Remote Sensing Forecast (see Imaging Notes, Summer 2004), several commercially important sectors are currently underserved. These include real estate, insurance, and telecommunications. All of them can make greater use of RS data if transformed into targeted information and presented in innovative, attractive forms.

The marketplace is still fragile and could suffer severe setbacks when the next launch or spacecraft failure occurs. Businesses based on space systems continue to be risky, despite the many improvements in launch and spacecraft technology that have taken place over the years. Space remote sensing faces a rather higher level of risk than does its lower altitude counterpart, aerial remote sensing.

The continuing puzzle to me is why the civil side of the government has not done more to integrate satellite data of all types and resolutions into its workflow. The missions of a number of civil agencies, including Departments of Interior, Homeland Security, and Agriculture, could be significantly enhanced by greater use of commercial satellite data. Local governments at the county and city level can also make effective use of the data. The civil agencies should do more to use remotely sensed data to support their geographic information needs and institute programs to assist local governments in using such data as well. Such moves would not only improve their management efficiency but also assist market development.

If it was not clear beforehand, the use of satellite and aerial imagery data after Katrina and Rita demonstrated how valuable these data are in responding to the damaging effects of natural disasters. These data were powerful tools in helping to discern the exact extent of flooding and highway and bridge destruction and in hastening rescue efforts. Once the flooding subsided, the extensive record provided has assisted recovery. The depth of information provided by high resolution multispectral imagery can also be used to assist in risk reduction of disasters before they happen by providing detailed examination and analysis of risk areas.

Finally, the recent decision to build a free-flying satellite to carry a Landsat-continuity sensor is extremely welcome, though too late to prevent a several-year gap in Landsat data continuity. The new sensor and satellite will also help assist market development, as many high resolution data users employ Landsat imagery as a backdrop for their analysis.

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