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Dawid Bilski

Silicon Valley's Hottest Innovations 2016

Small is Beautiful
With its low-cost satellites, Planet Labs is bringing the benefit of real time data access to just about everyone

Kripa Mahalingam

"We came up with the mission to image the whole world every day — that is a dataset we haven't had before" — Robbie Schingler, co-founder, Planet Labs

They say good things come in small packages. And no one knows it better than satellite imagery firm, Planet Labs. Headquartered in Mission district, San Francisco, this start-up is designing building and launch satellites faster than any company or government at dramatically lower costs. What’s more, they are using consumer electronics to do it. It was while they were working as engineers in NASA Ames Research Centre in 2010 that Will Marshall, Robbie Schingler and Chris Boshuizen, founders of Planet Labs realised that their smartphones had more computing power than traditional satellites in orbit. The prohibitive costs to launch satellites and the enormous amount of time required often make traditional space companies risk-averse when it comes to experimenting with new technology. Hence, they choose to stick to what they know works. Planet Labs, which didn’t have that baggage to deal with, turned the industry on its head by building satellites cheap and fast, in huge numbers, and upgrading them like smartphones with every launch.

Their satellites, which are called Doves, are built on the 3U CubeSat format (10 cm X 10 cm X 30 cm). CubeSats were developed by two professors in Caltech and Stanford in the 1990s to help students experiment with satellites. The basic CubeSat is a 10-centimeter cube with a mass less than 1.33 kgs and has more than one unit depending on the mission. The miniature satellites reduce launch costs because they don’t weigh a lot and can also piggyride on a large satellite, making them suited for low orbits. It captures the imagery using a combination of telescope and camera.  

“The biggest cost is getting into space, so it is all about mass. It makes a huge difference if it is 5 kilograms or 500 kilograms. We brought the sensor revolution to space by redesigning the satellite and leveraging the convergence of the trends of commodification of data storage and computer,” says Robbie Schingler, co-founder and chief strategy officer, Planet Labs. “When we started the company in 2010, recognising that global change is happening faster than we can respond to, we came up with the mission to image the whole world every day — that is a dataset we haven’t had before,” he says. Planet collects new and unique information which it then activates on the web to provide people real time context to make better decisions. Steve Jurvetson, partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetston and lead investor in Planet first met the founders while launching rockets in the Black Rock Desert with his son where the founders had to come to test fly an Android phone as a satellite. “Planet is taking a radically different approach to earth-imaging satellites to boost the frequency and universality of coverage. When I saw their approach, I was confident they would reshape the commercial space industry and build a very strong data business,” says Jurvetson, who also sits on the board. 

Right now, the company’s satellites can image the land area of the earth once every three days. Planet has, till now, launched 145 satellites into a very low sun-synchronous orbit, around 450-500 kilometers above earth, of which more than 60 are still operational. In the next six months, the company hopes to have a 120-satellite constellation. They are built to last for 9-12 months after which they burn up into the atmosphere. The company’s satellites go through continuous iteration of design overhauls. The satellites are now in their 13th generation and engineers are finding ways to incorporate latest technologies with new components to improve their computation capabilities and also make them more power-efficient. “Initially, our focus was to build the satellite as cheap as possible but we invested a bit more to make it better and optimise and compress more capabilities,” says Schingler.

The company aims to make the data accessible to all. Until now the government, intelligence agencies and perhaps some deep-pocket companies had access to satellite imagery, most of which were classified. “We are collecting the information and building a platform that allows other people to build their own applications. While we will be providing some fundamental services that will be added over the next year, we are building an ecosystem where people can build their own decision support systems and ask questions. Since the use case for our data spans across industries, we can’t ask all the questions,” says Schingler.

Right from hedge fund managers, traders, fortune 100 companies, government agencies to NGOs are using Planet Labs imagery to measure agricultural yields, monitor deforestation and illegal mining, aid first responders after natural disasters, count ships at ports and cars at the parking lots of retailers. Amnesty International used it to track refugee camps in Syria and Uganda. “The temporal cadence and resolution of Planet’s imagery is enabling us to do things we never could have done with legacy remote sensing data. It’s incredibly exciting,” says Mark Johnson CEO, co-founder, Descartes Labs. Descartes Labs is using their own machine learning techniques to analyse tonnes of Planet Labs imagery, recognise patterns, and make agricultural predictions more accurate than the US government’s forecast. They were able to estimate the 2015 corn production with far more precision using Planet Lab’s imagery and that is valuable information because corn is a $67 billion business in America with over 30 analysts tracking the crop. Similarly, FarmersEdge takes imagery from Planet Labs and finds out the soil quality by running it through an algorithm and then sends signals to tractors on the amount and the type of fertilisers they should use on each part of the field. “Imagine every farmer in the developing world having access to crop health and over-watering data, like the rich farmers do today. Existing imaging markets want better frequency and coverage, and if you push it far enough, entirely new markets will arise.” says Jurvetson. It is all coming together for Planet Labs because, on the one hand, latest technologies in consumer electronics is helping them pack more computing power in their tiny satellites and, on the other hand, leap-frog advancements in machine learning means users can unleash the massive amounts of data collected onto the computers which then learn to solve the problems. 

The biggest hurdle that the company faces right now is tackling inevitable delay in launches which is not in their hands. “The single barrier we face is access to space,” says Schingler. The delay can range anywhere from six months to a year and the company is doing two things to overcome the challenge of delays and the risk of technical obsolescence. “We typically buy more launches than we need and have a diversified launch manifest to overcome delays. If there is a blow-up, there is an investigation that takes place and puts that particular orbit out of business for 6 to 12 months. We have been on 15 launches and two of them didn’t go well for us, and that hurt. But we were back on our feet in three months,” says Planet’s co-founder. Planet Labs lost about 26 satellites when the Antares rocket went up in flames in Virginia in 2014 and lost another eight during the failed launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster in June 2016. But these setbacks don’t fluster the team since they are very aware of the risks. That is why not only does Planet have a diversified launch manifest, but also puts more satellites into the orbit than required to ensure continuity. 

The company has also invested substantially in its satellite manufacturing capacity. They manufacture about 10 satellites a week but have the capacity to go up to 20 satellites. Planet usually starts building the satellite some weeks closer to the launch date so that they can use the latest technology. Once the satellite is ready, it is handed over to NanoRacks, a launch integration company, that gets it ready for launch. The mission control system not only operates and monitors the large fleet of imaging satellites but also schedules the downloading of data across a global network of 30 ground stations. The satellites produce approximately 1.6 TB or around 300,000 images a day. 

Planet Labs has raised around $183 million through multiple rounds from investors such as Draper Fisher Jurvetson, First Round Capital, Yuri Milner, Data Collective and IFC to fund their dream of imaging the whole world everyday. The company believes that its ability to image every part of the earth will enable people see change as it happens and will change the way they make decisions. “The goal is to move towards a more transparent planet and harness the power of space for a better life on earth,” signs off Schingler with a smile.

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