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Summary:

Google kicked off what could be a big satellite technology investment spree with a $500 million bid for startup Skybox Imaging. Skybox takes hi-rez images of the Earth’s surface, but Google has broadband plans for the company.

skybox
photo: Skybox

Reports about Google investing big in satellite technology and specifically buying satellite photography outfit Skybox are true. The companies revealed on Tuesday that Google has entered into agreement to buy Skybox Imaging for $500 million in cash.

As its name implies, Skybox is trying to build a constellation of microsatellites that will take high-resolution images of the earth’s surface and then mine data from the photos and videos it captures. According to Skybox’s blog:

“We’ve built and launched the world’s smallest high­-resolution imaging satellite, which collects beautiful and useful images and video every day. We have built an incredible team and empowered them to push the state­-of­-the-­art in imaging to new heights. The time is right to join a company who can challenge us to think even bigger and bolder, and who can support us in accelerating our ambitious vision.”

Google confirmed it plans to use Skybox’s images to improve Google Maps, but Google added that the data Skybox collects would help other aspects of the company’s business, including Google’s numerous internet access projects.

An image of the Somalia coast taken by SkySat-1

An image of the Somalia coast taken by SkySat-1 (source: Skybox)

“Their satellites will help keep our maps accurate with up-to-date imagery,” Google said in a statement. “Over time, we also hope that Skybox’s team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief — areas Google has long been interested in.”

Skybox’s first satellite SkySat-1 – about the size of a mini-fridge – went into orbit in November atop a Dnepr rocket launched from Russia, and it soon began snapping its first sub-meter-resolution photos. The company’s plan is to put a total of 24 birds into low-Earth orbit.

A size comparison of imaging satellites currently in orbit. The Hubble is pointed toward the heavens, not Earth, while GeoEye satellites are what Google uses today for imaging data. (Source: Skybox)

A size comparison of imaging satellites currently in orbit. The Hubble is pointed toward the heavens, not Earth, while GeoEye satellites are what Google uses today for imaging data. (Source: Skybox)

This isn’t Google first investment in satellite technology. It took part in the initial funding of O3b Networks, which launched its first four satellites last summer. Unlike Skybox, O3b is focused on broadband connectivity (it’s name stands for the “other 3 billion) in underdeveloped areas of the world. While Google X’s Project Loon isn’t using satellites per se, it’s operating under the same principles.

Loon balloons, like internet satellites, blanket the earth’s surface with wireless signals, but they ride on the atmosphere’s stratospheric winds rather than hang in orbit. Google’s recent purchase of drone-maker Titan Aerospace is another means to solve the same problem, using self-propelled aircraft to pinpoint mobile coverage instead of free-floating balloons.

How Google would use Skybox in its internet access efforts remains to be seen. It could choose to fit future SkySats with broadband radios, building a communications satellite constellation similar to that of Iridium or Globalstar. Skybox’s relatively low altitude would mean Google could deliver lower-latency connections compared to the big satellite broadband rigs way up in geo-stationary orbit.

A look at the various satellite orbits. Skybox sits in low-Earth orbit just above the atmosphere (Source: Gigaom)

A look at the various satellite orbits. Skybox sits in low-Earth orbit just above the atmosphere (Source: Gigaom)

Or Google could just mean it will use Skybox as an “eye in the sky” to help it plan and coordinate its other broadband projects. For instance, a Skybox’s imagery could identify the biggest areas of devastation after an earthquake or tsunami and route drones or Loon balloons to those locations.

This most likely isn’t the last satellite technology purchase or investment we see from Google. The Wall Street Journal last week reported that Google plans to invest between $1 billion and $3 billion in satellite technology and has hired a team of experts from O3b and Space Systems/Loral to help run the project. Space News reported that Google is backing a company called either L5 or WorldVu that has picked up a satellite communications spectrum, which could be used to create an orbital broadband network.

The details of Google’s satellite plans are slowly starting emerge, and we don’t know how all of these pieces will fit together. But if you want to get an idea of what a Google space-based network might look like, check out satellite communications analyst Tim Farrar’s detailed blog post on the subject.

 

 

  1. They’re always on the move, those companies.
    Leslie

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  2. This is going to crush DigitalGlobe’s push of trying to sell their over-accurate imagery in the commercial market. Coupled with UAS about to take over commercial imagery, time to short DGI.

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  3. All of the technologies skybox is using are either in the public domain or of their own design as far as I can tell. They are deliberately not trying to compete with the high res imaging companies and our military/security forces. That’s pretty smart, since mission cost scales with imager size to the power of 2-3! If you don’t need to see a license plate, don’t build a camera that can. comment by: http://www.fifawcup2014.com

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