RapidEye: Delivering the World

From China to Chile and Everywhere in Between

Fig. 1

Xinjiang Province, China, taken August 2009.

Fig. 2

This is Saldanha Bay, including West Coast National Park on the West Cape, South Africa, taken Jan. 26, 2010.

Fig. 3

Camargue National Park in Southern France image was taken Jan. 22, 2010.

Fig. 4

Morocco, taken Aug. 12, 2010, in the area north of Assa. It is in the Ouarzazate province between the Anti-Atlas and the High Atlas mountain ranges.

Fig. 5

This is the north-eastern portion of Western Sahara, about 200 km east of the town of Semara. It is in Northern Africa, on the western border of the North Atlantic Ocean. The desert is some of the most arid, inhospitable and sparsely populated in the world. This image is also on the cover; see page 6 for more information.Image taken Aug. 12, 2010.

Marketing ExecutiveMarkus Heynen
Director of Marketing
Brandenburg an der Havel,Germany

RapidEye may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of Earth Observation (EO) imagery and services. However, the company has been around as a business concept for close to fifteen years, and by name for over ten. That still makes it the ‘new kid’ in this industry, or maybe even the underdog. Either way, the next year will prove to be a crucial time for RapidEye as it intensifies marketing efforts through every channel to get noticed, builds its brand recognition, and continues to demonstrate the quality and reliability of its products and services to generate a broader customer base.

Imaging Notes strives to cover the worldwide commercial remote sensing companies equally and objectively. Other companies are featured regularly.

Born out of interest by the DLR (the German Space Center) to explore commercializing satellite-based Earth Observation in Germany, RapidEye has grown from a small core group of ten in Munich to a dynamic team of over 130 professionals from over 20 countries. It has called the German city of Brandenburg an der Havel, just outside Berlin, its home since 2004.

Classifying RapidEye as a company is challenging. Calling itself a “Geospatial Information Provider,” which is an accurate though general way to describe it, you may not pick up on some of the more important aspects of the company and what it really does.

While the business plan has been altered over the years to accommodate a changing industry, one of the key components has been static. RapidEye provides, and is dedicated to its service concept of supplying customers with decision-making tools that provide relevant information that can enhance the bottom line of the client.

In order to provide these services to the several industries that it targets, RapidEye naturally uses EO imagery. This is where it gets interesting. RapidEye owns and operates its own satellite constellation and utilizes the imagery as the main data source for its services. As an additional revenue generator, it also markets and sells its imagery.

Building two businesses under one roof is never an easy undertaking, but with an enthusiastic and dedicated team, RapidEye is facing the challenges head-on, and progress abounds on both fronts.

Party of Five

If you find yourself at the front door of its headquarters in Germany, you can’t miss the S-Band antenna that graces the top of the prominent red brick building RapidEye occupies in the city center. From the outside, the antenna is the most visible part of the ground segment, which is used to communicate with its constellation of five identical satellites.

The RapidEye system was conceived, designed and developed based on the limitations of other commercially operational satellite systems to collect, process and deliver large areas through remote sensing. MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, Ltd (MDA) was the prime contractor for the RapidEye system and held the responsibility for all system engineering and program management tasks. SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology, Ltd) and Jena-Optronik were subcontracted by MDA to construct the satellites and handle sensor assembly and delivery, respectively.

Launched in August of 2008 with a shower of media attention locally and abroad, RapidEye’s five satellites were sent into space inside the cone of a DNEPR-1 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. A picture-perfect launch led to a successful faring separation, releasing the constellation into space. Over the next weeks the satellites, which are about the size of a household dishwasher and weigh just 150 kg (330 lbs) each, found their home in an orbit equally spaced 650 km (~400 miles) above the Earth.

Five satellites with the collective capacity to image over 4 million km² (more than 1.5 million square miles) and the ability to revisit any area on Earth daily, can obviously cover a lot of ground in a very short time frame. This gives RapidEye imagery customers volumes of data from which to choose. Many areas around the globe have been imaged several times, providing options to acquire imagery from different seasons or the opportunity to purchase a time series of images.

To give you an idea of the sheer quantity of data that can be collected by RapidEye’s system on a daily basis, four million km2 is equal to the land mass east of the Missouri River in the contiguous United States. RapidEye’s collection capacity is more than four times what can be imaged by its nearest competitor, and after only fourteen months of being officially “open for business,” the RapidEye Library had already amassed over one billion square kilometers of imagery. This is seven times the land mass of Earth, and there’s more imagery to choose from every day.

Supplying five-meter pixel size imagery in five spectral bands (blue, green, red, near infrared and red-edge), the RapidEye system falls into the high-range resolution category and is suitable for a myriad of monitoring tasks for a wide range of industries. While it cannot compete with very high resolution (sub one meter) image providers, that was never the intention. A different kind of niche market is served by RapidEye, one that can derive the information needed from images with a slightly lower spatial resolution, which is accompanied by lower imagery costs. With GIS systems finding their way into more and more businesses and with new applications being explored, this market is expanding.

China in Your Hands

As with many aspects of life, our proudest moments come after hurdling an obstacle or two. More than likely, RapidEye’s largest imagery project to date would be described by the team that executed and delivered it as a great success preceded by a series of challenges.

The Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) for the People’s Republic of China has been utilizing remote sensing and satellite imagery to map and monitor their country for over ten years. For a ministry overseeing a country with a land mass stretching 9.6 million km², it would surprise no one that the MLR had never been able to acquire imagery of the entire area within one year. They were looking for a system that could deliver, and RapidEye negotiated through their Chinese distributor Beijing Earth Observation (BEO) to be able to take on the project.

RapidEye’s Head of Operations would tell you that the challenges of taking on a task of that magnitude were not even apparent when the contract was signed to cover China. The contract was renegotiated over a matter of months, and eventually stipulated that the MLR wanted 80% of China (7.8 million km²) delivered within a 6-month time frame with a maximum of 10% cloud cover. Of course there were also specific areas that the MLR needed absolutely cloud free.

For a satellite imagery and solutions company that had been commercially operational for only six months when the project began, this requirement can be described only as an ambitious undertaking. As many who have worked in this business will tell you, theoretical application always has a tendency to leave out a little bit of reality when applied practically, especially when your biggest challenge is Mother Nature.

Historical cloud cover data and cloud forecasting played a primary role when deciding where to image in China. Originally, the Ministry of Land and Resources requested that RapidEye begin collecting imagery on a county-by-county basis. However, after attempting to fulfill this request, the under-utilization of the system and unfavorable weather conditions thwarted this plan and the idea was eventually scrapped in favor of a more opportunistic approach.

Once the weather situation was more or less sorted out, then came the challenges of quality control, cataloging and delivering large chunks of data, which RapidEye hadn’t dealt with at this early stage. Luckily, the team worked diligently to solve these steps in the delivery process, and an in-house software tool was designed to generate a semi-automated shape file to accompany the data delivery. This helped the MLR to visualize quickly the imagery they were receiving on a daily basis.

When the imaging campaign hit full swing and it was time to test the capabilities of the system, a team of RapidEye operators found themselves knee-deep in imagery. After only one month, almost one-quarter of the project was delivered; at the 60-day mark, the MLR had received 40% of their requested area, and by the end of the third month, over 75% of the imagery had been collected (5.85 million km²). Having never pushed the system for such a large area collection for a customer, the operators found that the experience was a little like taking a Ferrari for a test spin that promises enormous horse power and the ability to reach a top speed of 185 mph, and finding out that it really does do what the manufacturer promised.

While it cannot compete with very high resolution (sub one-meter) image providers, that was never the intention. A different kind of niche market is served by RapidEye, one that can derive the information needed from images with a slightly lower spatial resolution, which is accompanied by lower imagery costs.

The satellites found themselves repeatedly covering China whenever weather conditions were good and other orders did not conflict in the planning schedule. Getting the low or no cloud covered image of an area that needed to be obtained occasionally required three, four or even five passes to capture an acceptable image.

As one would suspect with the preceding statistics about the RapidEye system delivery, the project exceeded everyone’s expectations (including those of the team that created the initial collection plan). One month before the end of the collection window, the MLR had received 99.8% of their requested area with an average cloud cover of less than 6%.

The Ministry of Land and Resources was suitably impressed by the RapidEye collection and delivery approach and will find themselves over the next months deciding whether it is necessary and within their budget to repeat the project. If so, RapidEye expects to be at the top of the list of considered providers, hoping that having completed the collection of China so well the first time will make them a shoo-in for round two.

Making a Difference

Early in the morning of Saturday, February 27, 2010, an earthquake and resulting tsunami hit the western coast of South America. With the epicenter south of the capital of Santiago, Chile, the quake measured 8.8 on the moment magnitude scale (MMS), causing the deaths of over 530 people near the epicenter, which included the town of Concepción.

Knowing that this would prove to be a large natural disaster and that rescue, recovery and future rebuilding efforts could benefit from the use of RapidEye’s imagery, planning was immediately altered for the daily collection from the satellites to include the area around Concepción. Less than 8 hours after the earthquake hit, RapidEye had its satellites over the area getting fresh imagery of this suddenly devastated region.

As the resulting images were being processed, the archive was searched for images over the same region to see if base imagery was available for comparison with the current imagery taken only hours before. By a stroke of luck, the exact area had been imaged on January 22, only four weeks earlier.

By the time business resumed on Monday morning in Europe, RapidEye imagery was available for download to emergency agencies to assist in relief efforts over the area; by noon, an internal team was beginning to analyze imagery from before and after the quake.

The analysis of Concepción clearly shows how satellite imagery can be used to illustrate spatial distribution of an area hit by an earthquake. Changes in vegetation are clear in rural areas, flooding is seen in urban areas and oceanic disturbances can be observed. These before and after images can also give the humanitarian aid community an idea of where the most destruction has occurred and, in turn, where more help may be needed.

An Ambitious Agenda

Since commercial operations of the constellation commenced in February 2009, RapidEye has undergone some significant changes, including the addition of 50 employees and an office in Washington D.C. under the name RapidEye USA, LLC.

Its distribution network, responsible for selling RapidEye imagery and promoting its service business, has grown to over 20 companies worldwide and is continuously expanding.

Additionally, the company has invested in the power of the Internet by launching its Geodata Kiosk, an e-commerce platform that allows for instant ordering and delivery of RapidEye’s satellite imagery. Over 20 million km² of data, including a vast majority of North America and Europe, are available for download to anyone at any time.

‘Eyeing’ the Future

While RapidEye has not always had an easy road and money hasn’t always been plentiful, it will be a company to keep your eye on (no pun intended). Plans are in the works to expand its business partnerships to include some additional respected names in the industry; at least ten more distributors will be signed on, and RapidEye is expected to prepare a framework contract with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency this fall.

Since a satellite system has a finite lifetime, plans to work on a second-generation system have already been discussed, even with the “wiggle room” that may be available due to the extended lifetime of the system, which the latest telemetry suggests. However, contract negotiations with a supplier look to be about two years away, likely to occur after decisions are made regarding system requirements.

With all of the irons currently in the fire, this company is ready to shake its ‘start-up’ status and move to the next level of being a profitable business.

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