Figure 3 DigitalGlobe's WorldView 1 rendering

From Missions to “My”

In our exploration of next-generation mapping we have been focused on the impact of Internet distribution of imaging and remote sensing (I/RS). In our last column we looked at the different users of I/RS—legacy niche users, convergence users, and ProAm users in “Where's the Killer App in Satellite Imagery?” (See archive at In this column we look at the impact of Internet distribution and NASA's change in mission on two companies at the polar extremes of the I/RS supply chain—Ball Aerospace and The Weather Channel. One builds the satellites that collect the data and the other transforms the data into information that saves lives and allows you to plan picnics.

Ball Aerospace has been manufact-uring satellites for over 50 years and focuses on the most difficult of missions to deliver the best land imaging of the earth. The Weather Channel has been in business for 25 years and takes the I/RS data and transforms it into TV and Internet presentations that educate over 89 million U.S. subscribers on storms and weather patterns.

Internet distribution of satellite imagery impacts the two companies differently: for one it means understanding a new user profile; for the other it means access to more free information. NASA's change in mission impacts the business model of one, while potentially compromising the service of the other. (See Sidebar on page 16.) Let's begin with The Weather Channel, which integrates some of the I/RS data that is powered by Ball's land imaging satellites.

The Weather Channel

An innovative cable TV network, The Weather Channel, has successfully commercialized weather forecasting and brought weather, science, and education programming to TV viewers. In addition, the Weather Channel is one of the most innovative media companies on the Web. On the, users can download weather tool bars, create their own weather web site (“my” weather), and click on related topics, helpful hints, information on global warming, and of course – ads! For the readers of this magazine, the site features satellite imagery and remote sensing presentations on a variety of views of weather patterns.

Figure 1 Naval Research Lab image of tropical cyclone “Bondo” on Dec. 20, 2006, in the southwest Indian Ocean.
Figure 2 A Weather Channel enhancement of the satellite imagery of tropical cyclone “Bondo” for on-air presentation.
Figure 4 WorldView 1 under construction in December 2006 at the Ball Aerospace facility in Boulder, Colo. Technicians perform integration of the focal plane into the telescope.
Behind the scenes are some “power users” of I/RS, including Dr. Steve Lyons of The Weather Channel. As an expert in tropical storm and hurricane forecasting, Dr. Lyons watches the oceans. According to Dr. Lyons, although the world is three-quarters water, there aren't enough aerial observation networks around the oceans and icebergs. Without up-to-date information on ocean activity, weather prediction models are inherently inaccurate. Satellite imagery fills the void in ocean data.

Dr. Lyons has been using I/RS in forecasting for over 35 years, and has found Internet distribution of I/RS to fill many data gaps. In addition, Internet use enables him to be mobile and have all of the data and models available to him 24/7. Every day Dr. Lyons analyzes 50-60 satellite images that he integrates into his forecasting models, including wind intensity, tropical wave, and water vapor models. Dr. Lyons analyzes data purchased by The Weather Channel as well as free imagery available from over 10 trusted Internet sites. This free imagery is what fills the data gaps.

Despite the growing use of numerical models in weather forecasting, Dr. Lyons believes that interpreting the satellite imagery is by far the most insightful way of developing forecasts. “You can take away anything but my satellite imagery,” said Dr. Lyons in an interview with Imaging Notes (see our in-depth interview online at including images direct from Dr. Lyons to share with Imaging Notes readers). These images are transformed into presentations that even the most casual observer of The Weather Channel can recognize as storms, dangerous weather, or a nice weekend to go outdoors. See Figure 1 for example of imagery used in the forecast analysis, and Figure 2 for an example of the on-air presentation.

I/RS results in improved weather forecasting, better understanding of climate change, life-saving information, and cost savings of billions of dollars to governments, organizations, and individuals. “If the government doesn't launch other land imaging satellites, we have a big problem,” said Dr. Lyons.

Powered by Ball Aerospace

With 60-80% of the commercial satellite industry business in the hands of the government, Ball Aerospace's major customers are NASA and DigitalGlobe. Ball is currently building DigitalGlobe's next satellite, WorldView 1, due to launch this summer with resolution of 50-centimeter panchromatic images. (See Figures 3-4.) As a provider of satellites for science, defense, commercial missions, with 2-3 launches a year and an average building time of 2.5 years for a spacecraft, Ball must be aware of changes in the business of missions as well as changes with end users. With NASA budgets flat, Ball sees the growth in the satellite imagery business coming from the commercial sector, including new Internet users and applications, and international demand.

In the past, understanding I/RS users meant talking to NASA and DigitalGlobe and their end customers, which include government agencies, academic research organizations, and large engineering firms. With the rise of Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth as consumers of I/RS, Ball recognizes that these companies have a different business model and that a new generation of users requires a different product. “The Internet has changed our behavior and the people we talk to,” said Jim Good, Director of Program Development for Operational Space at Ball Aerospace. To better understand this growing new user profile, Ball has begun focus groups to determine the types of data and rendering that will be acceptable to these new consumers of I/RS data. Timeliness of data (more revisits) and low cost are important to all users, but “pretty pictures is what sells advertising for Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, and that's a different product,” he commented.

Ball is optimistic that new uses for I/RS, including linking metadata to remote sensing data (driven by Internet users), agricultural applications (including crop health monitoring), and various weather forecasting applications will drive future growth.

Politics and Globalism

The U.S. government remains the single largest purchaser of remote sensing data. As such, NASA's change of mission as pointed out by Imaging Notes editor Ray Williamson in his last column, “NASA: No Longer Protecting Our Home Planet?” (see archive at will have serious impacts on the demand for earth observation as the focus moves to deep space exploration. Jim Good of Ball Aerospace says the impact on Ball's I/RS business is that growth from NASA will remain flat. In the meantime, the international satellite business is experiencing high growth fueled by the quest for more data, faster revisits, and overall timeliness. As other countries develop their own satellite capabilities through government funding and subsidies, and as they seek to reduce reliance on U.S. data, the U.S. satellite manufacturers find themselves increasingly challenged in the international marketplace. As the U.S. continues to balance technology transfer and competitiveness in an increasingly global market, the Internet continues to deliver “data without borders.”

Will we see a Google Satellite in the not-so-far future?

As on-board storage has increased, data downlinks have become the “long pole in the tent,” according to Jim Good. This long pole creates opportunity for innovation in communications over the next 2-3 years that should address the increased demand for real-time data by new Internet users.

A Complex Ecosystem

“New media” distribution is impacting companies throughout the I/RS supply chain. Ball and The Weather Channel are just two examples. Ball relies on taxpayer dollars to build the majority of its satellites, so that data can be purchased by government agencies and academic research centers that make the data available for free on the Internet, and by a company like Google that makes money selling advertising. The Weather Channel is cleverly making use of all this free information to make better weather predictions and sell more advertising. In order for Ball to stay on the cutting edge of satellite technology, and for all of these anticipated new I/RS applications to flourish, it needs government funding. If NASA continues to diminish its role in I/RS funding, who will fill the void? The stakes are high for next-generation mapping. End


Note: An interview with Dr. Steve Lyons was featured in our February eNewsletter.


Craig Bachmann & 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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