Google Earth provides Web users with basic global satellite imagery periodically updated. “It’s always sunny,” says Scott Larson, “and the car is parked out front.” Soon, Larson says, his startup, UrtheCast, will begin broadcasting high-resolution, near-live global images and video from the cameras it’s planning to affix to the International Space Station.
A Russian rocket flying to the space station in October will drop off about 238 pounds of the Canadian company’s equipment, including the first nondefense high-definition video camera for filming earth from space. UrtheCast’s 4.5-foot-long camera, designed to handle the radiation and extreme temperatures of orbit, will record 90-second videos 150 times a day as the spacecraft circles the planet, Larson says. A second camera will continuously snap still photos. Together, the stills will cover a 47.3-kilometer-wide swath of the planet and generate 2.5 terabytes of data a day, the equivalent of about 270 full-length movies. UrtheCast’s engineers will condense and post the visuals to the company’s website an hour or two later. “With our images, you can see things moving and changing,” Larson says.
UrtheCast’s feed will be freely available to consumers and third-party app developers looking for photos and video of specific addresses or events, from parades and marriage proposals to protests and floods, based on the space station’s orbit schedule. The startup also may compete with DigitalGlobe and other companies in the commercial satellite-imaging business, which Transparency Market Research says will grow from $1.24 billion in 2011 to $3.76 billion by 2018. UrtheCast plans to offer a paid service with specific imaging to order for agriculture, forestry, and oil and gas companies, as well as government agencies. Larson says UrtheCast hasn’t settled on pricing yet, but competitors charge about $1.25 per square kilometer for photos. “It’s just taking the industry to another level,” says Marco Caceres, director of space studies at researcher Teal Group. “You can see a tsunami hitting Asia. If you import coffee from South America, you can see a disease happening in the field that could impact your coffee purchases.” DigitalGlobe declined to comment.
Powered by the space station, UrtheCast will be able to shoot images at night, something existing providers’ solar-powered satellites don’t do, Larson says. “That’s something unique. There’s a great application potential,” says Timothy Puckorius, chief executive officer of Earth Observation Technologies, which plans to act as UrtheCast’s account manager for some government clients. Russia’s largest space-rocket company, OAO RSC Energia, agreed to take the cameras into space and attach and maintain them for free in exchange for the rights to all UrtheCast imagery of its home country, including for use in oil and gas exploration. Long-standing agreements between the space station’s partner countries allow Energia to bring up equipment for Russia. Larson says the savings on satellite launch costs mean his startup’s profit margin will be even higher than the industry-standard 50 percent.
Larson co-founded UrtheCast with his brother Wade and three colleagues in 2010, after Energia contacted Wade Larson’s employer, aerospace company MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates, about building equipment for the space station. The project wasn’t a good fit for MDA, Wade Larson says. UrtheCast, which has 22 employees, has raised $11.5 million from angel investors and expects to raise another $25 million in a reverse takeover slated for this summer.
If successful, the startup could push other companies to install cameras on the space station, says Nick Waltham, head of imaging systems at the RAL Space division of Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which is building the UrtheCast cameras along with MDA. “For a lot of years, people were talking about the space station as a white elephant, like, ‘What do you do with it?’ ” Waltham says. “Now they are trying to find more commercial applications, and earth imaging is one. You almost can’t have too much earth-observation data.”