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An Army of Little Satellites for Watching Earth on the Cheap

An image from the Dove 2 satellite taken on Apr. 26, 2013

Photograph courtesy Planet Labs

An image from the Dove 2 satellite taken on Apr. 26, 2013

The only thing cooler than a tiny, cheap satellite is a fleet of tiny, cheap satellites. Or so figure three former NASA scientists who have just unveiled their new company called Planet Labs.

Chris Boshuizen (Australian), William Marshall (British) and Robbie Schingler (U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.) all met at the NASA Ames facility in Mountain View, Calif., and bonded over the wonders of CubeSats. These devices, for the ungalactic among you, tend to range in size from a softball to an oversize shoebox and come with all kinds of wondrous computing innards. Like their larger satellite brethren, CubeSats can take pictures, perform science experiments, and communicate with Earth. They just do so way cheaper than traditional gear by playing off increasingly powerful consumer electronics and free software, such as the Linux operating system.

To date, NASA and a handful of researchers have tossed up a CubeSat here and there to see how they perform in space and to run a few experiments. No one, though, has tried to create a business on the scale of Planet Labs. It’s building what’s believed to be the largest satellite fleet ever assembled by sending up 28 CubeSats early next year. And rather than using the hardware for temporary experiments, Planet Labs will leave its satellites in orbit for years at a time as part of a proper business.

The company will use these devices to take a constant stream of pictures of the Earth’s surface that will monitor land use over time. (The satellites’ cameras aren’t strong enough to see people.) Initially, Planet Labs plans to sell access to the images as a service, targeting agriculture, mapping, and finance customers. “We can gather fresh updates about what is happening in a field,” says Schingler. “We can look at chlorophyll content, see if there’s a blight or if a crop needs more fertilizer.”

These types of images do exist, but they tend to be expensive and based on a particular moment in time. You might, for example, tell an imaging company that you want a shot of a location and then come to find out that it has a cloud in the middle of the result. You pay nonetheless. With Planet Labs, by contrast, customers can basically log on to the service and pay as they go for what they want. The founders say they’re still working out pricing and declined to offer a ballpark figure.

The startup has raised more than $13 million from some big name backers, such as Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Founders Fund Angel, and Innovation Endeavors. It has also already put a couple of test satellites into space earlier this year and started taking images. Like others working with CubeSats, Planet Labs hitches rides on commercial rockets made by the likes of Orbital Sciences (ORB) and SpaceX, and has its devices ride as secondary payloads to larger, more expensive satellites.

Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (HarperCollins, May 2015). Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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