Where's the Killer App in Satellite Imagery?

In our recent column in the Summer issue of Imaging Notes, we discussed the impact of new media on next-generation mapping, forthcoming changes in business models, and the generation of new applications. The new wave of “Internet mapping” is the buzz, but is it the “killer application” in imagery and remote sensing (I/RS)? This column will explore the emergence of a killer app in I/RS from three distinct groups: legacy satellite imagery producers and niche users, ProAm users, and convergence users. Each group is unique, with different challenges and motivations, yet they are interdependent, with each group relying on the others for data, technology and innovation.

Figure 1 Google Earth mashup identifying all the places quoted in Shakespeare’s plays.

Legacy Data Providers and  Imagery Users

Satellite imagery producers are working to adapt their “factories in the sky” to new technology and distribution models and to new uses for their products. 80 percent of the commercial satellite imagery business used to go to the military. Now it’s more of a 60-40 split between military and commercial uses. As a result, imagery data and platforms continue to be the domain of traditional niche users. However, Internet mapping, which is viewed as the biggest shift in the industry, now presents “off-the-shelf” tools and data that can be integrated by anyone with access to the Internet. This may result in yet another potential change in satellite usage away from majority military use to other commercial use as Internet users integrate “field data” and develop applications for a “long tail” list of social, political, and economic goals, needs, and interests.

A number of factors have contributed to lack of innovation on the part of satellite imagery producers over the last few years, including storage constraints and the U.S. Government’s “Buy and Deny” policy. The U.S. Government is no longer in a position to negotiate exclusive contracts with satellite imagery providers to protect what it considered sensitive information and therefore can no longer deny commercial consumers access to a significant amount of imagery. With more satellite imagery now available, DigitalGlobe believes that the innovative, increased value proposition and therefore killer application will come from “enriched geospatial content” that stems from increased coverage, storage capacity, and access. DigitalGlobe and GeoEye have extensive libraries that can be made available to users. Coverage and access will be the key differentiators in matching users to content and in developing data clearinghouse capabilities, as users become more interested in remote areas of the globe and as international demand increases. The innovation game has changed. “Although we have higher resolution capabilities, the key is solving a problem in the day-to-day lives of people, businesses, and government,” said Chuck Herring, director of corporate communications, DigitalGlobe. Storage capacity has always been an issue for satellite imagery providers, but now with new storage capabilities, there is room to innovate on the imagery itself, which does not have to include higher resolution.

ProAm Users

Internet mapping à la Google Earth has unleashed a whole new class of geospatial data users—let’s call them ProAm geospatial data users. ProAm (professional/amateur) users are anyone from advanced GIS users to field scientists and to interested global citizens or teenagers with Internet skills. With 100 million downloads of Google Earth, ProAm users are being viewed as the new laboratory for innovative ideas and uses of spatial data. This, it is believed, will fuel the long tail of geospatial information. The Long Tail, a term coined by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, is about the economics of abundance: prosperity created by making goods and services available to everyone. (See note below.)

Figure 2 An Autodesk Max 3D Model of the proposed 2012 Olympic dome in London visualized through Google Earth.

Thanks to Google Earth and others, satellite imagery is no longer a scarce resource subject to limited supply and demand. It is now abundantly available, as people access it more as part of a service than a product, and demand continues to rise. Google Earth product manager, Chikai Ohazama sees the new killer application as ‘expression.’ “We have put GIS in the hands of the masses,” said Chikai, “and through the Google Earth community they have come up with incredible uses for geospatial data—for example, Shakespeare mapping. For the Shakespeare zealots out there, all the places quoted in Shakespeare’s plays have been geocoded, and with the click of a mouse you can find these historic locations.” The locations are cleverly identified in Figure 1 with little Shakespeare icons. These ProAm users are combining Google Earth with all sorts of data, products, and services. The challenge for Google is enabling “richer mashups.”

Convergence Users

Between the legacy users and the ProAm users are the integrators of geospatial data–we’ll call them convergence users. The convergence users integrate satellite imagery into their product and service offerings and are attempting to synthesize the legacy and ProAm worlds with innovative approaches to spatial data applications. CH2M HILL has been a long-time integrator of geospatial data (see Sidebar on CH2M HILL). CH2M HILL is refining the value proposition for geospatial information and how it results in better business and policy decisions. CH2M HILL sees spatial information management (SIM) and “white space fusion” as the new opportunity fueled by Internet mapping. Ed Riegelmann, vice president and director of CH2M HILL Enterprise Spatial Solutions (ESS) describes white space fusion as “the commercial industrial space that has never before used geospatial data.”

Figure 3 A simulated F-16 crash site demonstrating a user-defined buffer showing affected areas and resulting toxic plume. The red buildings indicate those buildings that require evacuation. The buildings already evacuated turn green while other colored buildings indicate that they have been notified to evacuate. The data was generated using ESRI’s ArcGIS and then visualized through Google Earth.

New applications will be developed by combining imagery with such things as engineering, project management, marketing, and data search. “Spatial information combined with visualization in a Google Earth environment allows managers to see into their businesses and make better business decisions,” said Nigel Nugent, vice president of CH2M HILL ESS Channel Partner Relationships. CH2M HILL has several key technology partners including ESRI, Autodesk, Microsoft, and Google Earth. Through these partnerships, ‘fusions,’ and ProAm contributions, CH2M HILL has developed end-to-end spatial solutions, which the company believes will drive enterprise management of spatial information. For example, Figure 2 illustrates a 3D model of the proposed 2012 Olympic dome (visualized through Google Earth) that can be managed end-to-end with a SIM package that monitors real-time progress and enables real-time decisions to ensure timely completion.

Geospatial visualization can also help mitigate environmental, health and safety damage as seen in Figure 3, in which a hypothetical F-16 crash is modeled to simulate a resulting toxic plume and toxic fallout. This eliminates guessing locations of impacted areas and dispatches an instantaneous alert to emergency response teams of impacted facilities and affected areas.

Challenges for I/RS

While opportunities abound for new applications of geospatial data, challenges are also present. For I/RS to address the new demands, image providers will compete on coverage, access, latency, and hot spot management. Currently, I/RS is challenged by inventory management, time stamping, cataloguing, and metadata for searches and retrieval, and as the demand for real-time accurate information increases, we can expect the issue to become more acute. The industry will need to address the need for next-generation mappers who can address the level of complexity in data tools, interpretation, and communication of integrated products and services. For example, university programs have yet to develop the Master of Geospatial Business and Communications.


The recurring theme across these three groups is that new visualization tools enabled by Google Earth are redefining peoples’ relationships to maps and how they use geo-data in their daily personal and professional lives. To those in the industry, Internet mapping is not revolutionary. But Google Earth has put it in the hands of the masses and that is evolutionary. The killer app has yet to be revealed, but it is percolating somewhere within these groups.

Note: Anderson, Chris, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, (Hyperion: New York, 2006)

CH2M HILL is an employee-owned $3 billion global firm that provides world class engineering, construction, operations and related technical services to public and private clients. Two years ago CH2M HILL launched its Enterprise Spatial Solutions (ESS) business. ESS leverages 30 years of GIS, CAD, relational database management system, and systems development and integration expertise to help its clients:
  1. Integrate a company’s data, information systems, assets, and facilities;
  2. Develop robust enterprise applications that integrate spatial data with Google Earth and other spatial applications;
  3. Improve decision-making through a spatial/map orientation of the business.

As CH2M HILL implements its spatial technology partners program, including such companies as Google Earth, ESRI, Autodesk and Trimble, it is rapidly becoming one of the next-generation spatial information integrators. CH2M HILL is part of a team (CLM Consortium) that is the Delivery Partner for the construction of the 2012 Olympics project in London.

Craig Bachmann and Natasha Léger are partners in ITF Advisors, LLC, an independent consulting firm with a focus on next-generation strategy and on translating the increasingly complex new media business environment’s impact on business models, markets and users.

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