Satellite Imagery is Not Becoming a Commodity

Photo by Hakan Yalcin on Unsplash

If Satellite Imagery Were Becoming Commoditized, You Could Buy It

I was recently listening to Aravind Raves’ fantastic podcast that aims to “demystify space technology.” His guest took a brief respite from flogging his “space manufacturing” startup to make a lazy argument I’ve heard people espousing for the last five years: earth observation is a crowded, low-margin market of increasingly undifferentiated companies.

  • Price depends on the company, last quarter’s sales numbers, this quarter’s sales numbers, the clout of the sales person, and the astral alignment of your horoscope. You’re about to spend anywhere between a few hundred dollars for an archival image to several thousand for a tasked image. That is, if they let you buy anything at all.
  • I would budget a few weeks to a few months for this adventure if I were you.
  • Are you familiar with File Transfer Protocol?

Satellite Imagery Suppliers are Like Dairy Farms

I grew up a few miles from a small dairy farm in North Carolina, Maple View Farm. When I was a kid, my Mom would schlep me up the long gravel driveway to the Nutter family’s farm house where a refrigerator waited, sweating in the summer heat, full of the most incredible chocolate milk you can imagine. The stuff is so thick you’d break your neck diving into a pool of it.

Vertically integrated ice cream is the best ice cream.

Not All Satellite Imagery is Created Equal

Even if access to satellite imagery had gotten significantly easier over the last five years (it didn’t), the idea that satellite imagery was becoming commoditized would still have been wrong. I’ve heard people employ the phrase, “a pixel, is a pixel, is a pixel,” to color the idea of satellite-imagery-as-commodity. It sounds reasonable enough — it shouldn’t matter which company produces the pixels as long as they meet the spatial, spectral, and temporal requirements of the customer.

Less of an Oddity, but Still Not a Commodity

There’s a saying in finance that goes something like, “Being right about something but getting the timing wrong still just means you are wrong.”

  • Characterize the extent and severity of natural disasters as they unfold in real time anywhere on Earth?
  • Monitor conditions on the ground in places made inaccessible due to geography or political regime?
  • Inventory land use and track its changes over time?

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Joe Morrison

Joe Morrison

Comedic relief at Umbra. Writing about maps and the people that make them. For inquiries: jrmorrison.jrm [at] gmail [dot] com