“When you have satellites in space, you can take a photo anywhere in the world, not just your backyard or your area, anytime, and that ability is quite deep and extraordinary, ”says Robbie Schingler, co-founder and director of the strategy of the satellite data company Planet Laboratoires. Schingler sees the company as an agent of “democratization of access to information”. Its network of nearly 200 satellites takes photos of the Earth daily and has captured more than 1,500 high-resolution images of every part of the Earth’s land mass since 2017.
Across industries, information from satellite imagery is already transforming the way people work. Take a few examples: farmers improve crop yields by getting clues about diseases, pests and nutrient deficiencies in their fields; governments learn about forests and vegetation to help them better prevent forest fires; and scientists are monitoring changes in Arctic rivers and glaciers by comparing historical images with current images.
As cloud computing, AI, and other technologies continue to advance, Schingler believes satellite imagery will provide even deeper insights. McKinsey’s Chris Daehnick recently spoke with Schingler about the growing treasure of satellite data and its future applications. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
A trillion dollar space economy?
Chris Daehnick: I heard you say that Planet has over 600 customers around the world. What kind of information do Planet customers get from satellite data?
Robbie Schingler: Our customers come from many industries, from agriculture to oil and gas, as well as commodity trading and government agencies (civil, defense and intelligence). We are constantly amazed at what our users do with our data. Some of the most surprising things come from academic organizations. For example, researchers believed that a glacial burst, causing a landslide, had occurred in the mountains of India. We are still collecting data and had images of the area taken at 30 minute intervals. By looking at them, researchers could tell exactly what changes to the landscape have occurred over time. Such information can help people understand both the risks and the preparatory measures. We can learn more about indicators and warnings and then do something about them.
There are many examples of agriculture, which is our biggest market. By adding our data to farming platforms, farmers can understand when to grow certain crops, how much fertilizer to apply, and what types of crops are growing. The data also helps them understand supply chain issues. An agricultural client increased the productivity of his crops by 10 percent by monitoring his entire growing area. It’s huge in a commodities market.
Chris Daehnick: The people in the space industry were like, “No money, no Buck Rogers. A lot of private money is currently flowing into space-related businesses. Your own business, for example, has just been floated on the stock market through a special purpose business merger. Do you think this trend will continue? Or are we in a “frothy” environment?
Robbie Schingler: We’ve heard analysts predict a trillion dollar space economy, some estimates as high as $ 3 trillion. It’s phenomenal and it’s exciting, but let’s also be realistic. The companies that will power the trillion dollar space economy are those that offer a product or service that appeals to many, many users.
Many opportunities will arise as infrastructure that was once only present on Earth is now going into space. We see it with telecommunications – this trend started in the late 90s, but what’s different today is that companies are already thinking about how to get hundreds of millions of subscribers when they are developing their business models. Having said that, I think it’s pretty sparkling right now. I bet we’ll see some consolidation in the space industry, with some companies breaking up.
It is a new frontier economy. Space was once something only the public sector could do, but with technology and entrepreneurs today, that is no longer the case. Governments also recognize that space products and services have matured. They find that the industrial base is growing quite substantially, often using technologies from other sectors, and they want to encourage this change. The interweaving between the commercial and government sectors will be crucial; we need to have deep, trust-based and long-term partnerships between the public and private sectors. Governments can also help the space industry by taking steps to shape the market, such as making regulations and being great corporate clients.
Imagine space in 2030
Chris Daehnick: Learn about the technologies that advance the space industry. What technological breakthroughs have we seen recently and what can we expect in the next ten or twenty years?
Robbie Schingler: A few unique technologies have made space businesses more possible. One is reusable rockets, which the industry has been trying to do for a long time. Hats off to the thousands of people at SpaceX who made this possible. It’s almost as if the four minute mile has been covered. Many companies are now using reusable rockets in their architecture.
On the tech side, cloud computing is enabling businesses to create better machine learning models, and we’re starting to see advanced computing and the Internet of Things everywhere, with sensors all over the planet and around the world. ‘space. So the technologies that change the economy on Earth are also changing the space economy.
Chris Daehnick: What kinds of economic activity do you think we will see in space in 2030?
Robbie Schingler: I think our economy will actually include “near space”. GPS and positioning, navigation and timing technologies are now ubiquitous. I think in the next ten years the satellites that take the pulse of the planet will be used for applications that help people on Earth make sense of things, so that we don’t get surprised, that we understand the risk, and that we are moving closer to a global economy at real cost. It’s something that fascinates me incredibly.
There will also be regular space travel, no doubt. We’ll have more humans landing on the moon, and I think we’ll have a base or two there. And I bet we’ll identify life – it could be a spectral signature of something that shows organic abilities or the potential of organic abilities. We may also find life in some of the aquatic worlds in our solar system.
Sustainability on Earth and in Space
Chris Daehnick: With more and more private companies embarking on space ventures, space, especially low earth orbit, will be more congested. Do you think this will create problems for satellite operators and other space organizations?
Robbie Schingler: It is incumbent on operators to act responsibly because space is part of the world heritage and we must manage this resource well. We will have to put in place new systems and the different actors should work together to establish traffic rules.
As more organizations venture into space, managing space debris will be a challenge. Today, the majority of debris in orbit is the result of the first decades of space activity. There are areas of congestion – mostly around 700 to 1,200 kilometers in sun-synchronous orbit – due to space activities in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, fortunately, governments and other operators are more responsible. For example, launcher suppliers ensure that their upper stages are outside of congested areas. Satellite operators like Planet who design and build their own satellites design them in a way that does not contribute to space debris. We design for durability.
Chris Daehnick: How do you do that exactly?
Robbie Schingler: There are many ways a business can design for sustainability and be a responsible player, and it depends in part on where you do business. For low Earth orbit, for example, you want to make sure that you are following U.S. government guidelines for de-orbiting non-operational satellites within 25 years. But let’s be honest: even that is not enough. We need to ensure that operators responsibly deorbit satellites that are nearing end of life. You need to design using materials that allow your satellites to disintegrate in the upper atmosphere, and you need to make sure your operating system has margins so you don’t take any shortcuts.
As in any business on Earth, some players in the space sector will seek to cut shortcuts. That is why we need regulations and rules of the road. We also need the public to know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.
Chris Daehnick: Speaking of sustainability, how can companies use Planet satellite data to solve climate change issues, such as extreme weather events?
Robbie Schingler: Spatial data can help the global community achieve some of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations General Assembly has set for 2030. Of these, 13 would benefit from Earth observation information because it provides a system. measurement, reporting and verification that is impartial, spatially explicit and scientifically accurate. Earth observation data enables policymakers, businesses, civil society and the media to gain a common picture of global risks and to take preventive action. Rather than just living on a changing planet, we can help it thrive. We can become stewards of the planet. If we work together and put our minds together, we can do the extraordinary.