LOGAN, Utah – Big players are starting to take notice of the capabilities that small satellites can provide, and they’re putting significant skin in the game.

Leading the pack, of course, is Google, which plunked down $500 million in June for Skybox Imaging. That deal closed on Aug. 1. Meanwhile, Planet Labs has used some serious venture-capital funding to launch 71 cubesat-sized spacecraft as it works toward a constellation of 100 small satellites that can update overhead imagery of every point on the globe, every day, weather permitting, for near-real-time change monitoring.

Earth observation (EO) with constellations of small spacecraft clearly is a "killer app" for the burgeoning smallsat industry, as illustrated by look-ahead presentations at the SmallSat 2014 conference at Utah State University here last week. Befitting the agriculture-school setting, Robert Meurer, who heads commercial and international civil space business development for ATK’s Space Systems Division, said agribusiness and food ministries worldwide will be a key customer.

"I believe agricultural assessment and management, where we assess the signatures of crops in order to determine their health, the growing conditions, any number of other aspects of the crops, is going to be a growth area," Meurer said. "The world is growing in population. It’s arable acreage is not increasing at the same rate. We’ve got to do a better job of growing crops. Small satellite systems can provide some of the information keys to that."

Also on Meurer’s list of Earth-observation technologies becoming available on small spacecraft such as his company’s A150 bus are synthetic aperture radar (SAR) for all-weather, day-night natural-resource monitoring and disaster mitigation, and sensors for terrestrial and space weather forecasting.

"There is no reason why we can’t build commercial weather systems today," he said. "It’s a political decision not to do that on a commercial basis right now, but I think that will change. The winds are starting to blow in a commercial direction."

GeoOptics and PlanetiQ are in a race to deploy the first commercial weather satellites, he said, while Dauria Aerospace is developing next-generation cubesat-based spacecraft for Earth observation and communications in its development centers at NASA Ames Research Center in California and the Skolkovo technology city near Moscow.

Like Dauria, ATK has teamed with an international partner for its smallsat developing, working with Singapore Technologies Electronics Limited (ST Electronics) on the A150 spacecraft. In addition to commercial applications, the small EO spacecraft are popular with emerging nations that lack the budgets for big-ticket birds, including South Africa, Chile, South Korea, Belarus and Mexico. Overall there are 275 government-owned EO spacecraft projected through 2022, many of them already under contract, Meurer said. Euroconsult forecasts manufacturing revenues for the EO constellations alone at $35.8 billion through 2022, he said. "Massive" data flow from the swarms of tiny spacecraft will put a growing strain on ground stations and the systems to process that data, offering additional business opportunities, he noted.