Last Week in Earth Observation: April 4, 2023
News, Analysis & Insights on All Things Earth Observation
Hey! Welcome to a new, belated edition of ‘Last Week in Earth Observation’, in which I attempt to curate the major developments in EO from the week that just passed and provide some thoughts & analysis on some of them.
Along with the usual summary of developments in EO, we are discussing: the state of commercial weather data from space and my thesis on the future of EO.
And, a special welcome to the ones who signed up recently. Just so you know, this goes out every Monday, but we are running a bit late this week!
Four Curated Things
A summary of some of the major developments in EO
1. Financial Stuff: Funding, Contracts and More 💰
Impact Observatory, a US-based startup building global land cover maps from EO data raised $4.9M in seed funding, from investors including Esri;
Digital Earth Africa, the EO platform for Africa has received additional funding for three more years from its original donors;
Planet reported record Q4 earnings bringing in $53M and also announced its plans to acquire Sinergise, an EO data platform from Slovenia;
Spire Global and PlanetiQ, both flying radio occultation instruments, won follow-on Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity contracts by NOAA to compete for orders worth $59M (+ my thoughts);
Thales Alenia Space won a contract from ESA to supply five SAR satellites and one optical satellite for the Italian EO constellation, IRIDE, worth €142M along with options for more orders (+ my thoughts).
2. Strategic Stuff: Announcements and Partnerships 📈
Maxar announced an update to its global basemap, which will now be available at 30 centimeters per pixel;
Maxar is also diversifying into imaging other satellites providing data for space situational awareness - here’s an image of Landsat 8 from a Maxar satellite (joining companies like HEO Robotics and AxelSpace);
UK startup Space Intelligence which builds carbon monitoring solutions from EO data is partnering with Everland, a company that manages the world’s largest portfolio of forest conservation projects;
BlackSky commissioned its newly launched satellites in less than a day, and integrated the data into its geospatial intelligence platform;
3. Interesting Stuff: More News 🗞️
Some launch news…
The TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions Monitoring of Pollution) instrument from NASA aimed at measuring air pollution in North America, will launch later this week hosted on an Intelsat communication satellite;
China launched four X-band synthetic aperture radar satellites from private company Piesat Information Technology Co. Ltd. focused on interferometry applications.
And other news…
China released public images from one of their more recent satellites, with a thermal infrared imaging instrument, and a hyperspectral imager, aimed at monitoring greenhouse gases and environmental applications;
Google awarded a $5M grant to the World Resources Institute as part of its Impact Challenge to study extreme heat and adaptation techniques, a project that will use EO among other sources;
4. Click-Worthy Stuff: Check These Out 🔗
Last week I mentioned that the extension of the NASA GEDI mission is very good news for climate. To learn why, check out this piece and this short clip;
This interactive map from Digital Earth Australia showing coastal change along the continent’s shorelines over the past 34 years;
Materials (openly accessible) from ESA’s training course on EO (+ an upcoming SAR course focusing on Polarimetric SAR Interferometry );
This interesting paper summarising the considerations of EO and artificial intelligence for building agriculture solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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Two Discussion Points
Analysis, thoughts, and insights on some developments in EO
5. State of Commercial Weather Data from Space
If you have been following me for a while, you must have read my thoughts about the commercial weather data segment. I am always unsure why this segment of EO gets limited attention despite the existing weather inequality and the global gap in weather observations. If you want a primer on how the weather industry works, the role of space, and the current gaps, check out my deep dive on weather from space for more.
The good news is we are in a golden era for spaceborne weather observations not only because the space agencies are launching advanced weather satellite systems (see here and here), but also because some commercial companies (see below) are attempting to complement them. This couldn’t have come at a better time as weather and climate are on everybody’s minds - albeit used interchangeably, and sometimes wrongly!
But, if we have to make this work, and continue filling the weather gaps globally so that everyone can adapt to and prepare for extreme weather events equally, we need successful commercial weather companies that operate in space. And unfortunately, we have not had much success there until recently. And one of the reasons (if you want to dig deep, I recommend you read the full deep dive):
The total addressable market for commercial weather data is, limited to the commercial data procurement budgets of only few (not all) meteorological agencies - therefore preventing the growth of the private weather sector.
This is why last week’s announcement that NOAA will continue to procure GNSS radio occultation data from Spire and PlanetiQ is crucial. The award which allows both companies to compete for orders worth $59 million over 5 years is a successful validation that commercial companies can provide data that is good enough and valuable for space agencies. This is despite the fact that this data does not come cheap, and is also not of the same quality compared to similar data from space agency missions like COSMIC-2. Yet, there is no other option - you have to take what's available!
TLDR; There looks to be sufficient demand for commercial weather data, but there is limited supply (yes, you read that right!).
6. Some Validation for My Thesis on the Future of EO
A lot of people ask me whether the future of EO will be about EO data companies, EO platform companies, or EO product companies. When I give my response, some people think I am giving them the consultant talk or being too cheesy. But, I have always maintained that we are asking the wrong questions in Earth observation - it's not about whether we should be selling data, analytics, insights, or products, but actually asking what is the overall impact of satellite data for the customer (RoI in business talk), and the cost of not doing so (opportunity cost in business talk).
The future of EO lies in our ability to look beyond the type of sensor, the name of the provider, or the satellite and look deeper into the problems that can be solved with EO, and the impact that it can have, with an objective, and holistic mindset.
We need to start by getting a deeper understanding of the significance and consequences of using satellite data for the customer and letting that dictate what the product is going to be and how it will look like, which technologies will enable the product, and how it is delivered to the end customer. I believe that the future of EO lies in our ability to learn the impact of the technology for the end user and build our solutions accordingly.
Of course, it is always not obvious what customers want nor can they articulate it properly (as Steve Jobs famously said). But, unlike an Apple product, EO is really just one of the many tools available for users to help them get their job done. So, it is imperative that we dig deeper into what their job is and how it is currently done to understand how EO while being the background, can help them do their jobs faster, better, cheaper, and more effectively.
An “impact-driven EO strategy”, as I call it, will help us decide:
if the customer needs data, analytics or insights, or a custom-built product.
what other sources of data will be needed to have the desired impact;
whether it is an API, a mobile app, a dashboard, or a white-labelled solution.
My thinking was at least partially validated when I read this paper published by Catherine Nakalembe and Hannah Kerner - two prominent figures in EO - in which they list ten considerations for future work on AI-EO in Africa (I certainly recommend you take a look). I hope we can take their recommendations to heart as we work towards sustainable, long-term growth of our industry.
One Podcast Episode
From the TerraWatch Space podcast
7. Platforms, Analysis Ready Data, Democratisation, and Other Buzzwords in Earth Observation
Last week, I published the podcast episode with Grega Milčinski, CEO of Sinergise (the company Planet announced that it is acquiring). Grega has been around in the EO sector for a while and has a ton of insight into the most important problems in EO, especially around making satellite data usable for all.
In this episode, Grega and I talk about his company, about Sinergise’s flagship product Sentinel Hub, the importance of solving boring problems, about EO Browser, thoughts on some buzzwords in EO, the state of the sector, and more.
PS. For those who are waiting for the job postings announced in last week’s edition, I apologise for the delay. They will be published this week. Thanks!
Until next week,