A version of this article appears in the June 16 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

In yet another data-point in the trend of technology companies buying into the aerospace sector, Internet giant Google plans to acquire small-satellite start-up Skybox. Google’s $500 million investment in the Silicon Valley business appears to offer the promise of scanning the globe on a daily basis, enhanced big-data analytics and the potential to expand the reach of the Internet.

With a view from space, Google could sell or provide data to all kinds of customers—those watching the make of cars in Wal-Mart parking lots, or monitoring railroads, pipelines and crop infestations. And it adds to Google’s recent buying spree of high-altitude platforms for Internet connectivity and Earth observation.

The addition of Skybox, which has patented a change-detection algorithm, may put Google in position to compete with other information services providers in Europe and the Middle East.

Earlier this year Google purchased Titan Aerospace, a manufacturer of high-altitude unmanned aerial surveillance platforms, saying the purchase was part of a long-term program including satellites and unmanned aircraft in support of both remote-sensing and web connectivity applications. Google is also backing WorldVu Satellites Ltd., which is seeking to launch a low-Earth-orbit constellation of hundreds of communications satellites to provide global broadband connectivity. In addition, Google has a minority stake in O3b networks, which has launched the first four of 12 satellites to provide Internet trunking from medium Earth orbit. 

Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, Calif., started as a Stanford class project in 2009 and has attracted attention for its “Skunk Works” development of small satellites and data analytics. Last year, Skybox launched its first high-resolution Earth observation satellite, with a second being readied for launch next month. Another 13 have been ordered from satellite prime contractor Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, California. A set of six satellites is slated to launch on Orbital’s Minotaur rocket next year.

The satellites, which weigh about 120 kg (260 lb.) and measure 60 X 60 X 95 cm (24 X 24 X 37 in.), are the first of a planned 24-satellite constellation operating in four different low-Earth-orbit planes, capturing sub-meter monochromatic imagery and producing 90-sec. high-definition panchromatic videos with a resolution of 1.1 meter at 30 frames per second. 

With satellites designed for low-cost use, Skybox draws on commercial parts from the automotive and other industries. A number of electronics—including the imaging sensor—were designed in-house, reducing their cost, in some cases from $100,000 to $2,000.

That means a cheaper satellite with redundant coverage, so the company can afford to lose one or two.

At this point, neither Google nor Skybox is providing much detail about how the Internet search giant will use its latest acquisition. “Skybox’s satellites will help keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery,” Google said in a June 10 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.”

But once it completes the six-satellite launch scheduled for 2015, Skybox believes it can provide once-a-day coverage of the globe. A dozen spacecraft would provide twice-a-day coverage, with each additional constellation providing a hedge against cloud cover.

Current Google Earth images, many of which are purchased from DigitalGlobe, were produced weeks or months or years ago, says Frost & Sullivan Aerospace and Defense senior industry analyst Michael Blades. 

With the Skybox acquisition following that of Titan Aerospace, Google moves closer to real-time information. “What they’ll end up doing is charging some kind of subscription service,” Blades says. With unmanned aircraft, balloons and satellites “you have instantaneous turnaround time if someone needs an image of a certain area.”

Could entry of a Google-backed imaging company disrupt the business of other military and intelligence imagery providers including DigitalGlobe, which just received government approval  to sell images at resolutions as low as 25 cm on the commercial market? The company was quick to point out what differentiates the two businesses.

“The market is moving toward higher resolution, higher positional accuracy, and greater spectral diversity,” DigitalGlobe says in a statement. “DigitalGlobe’s imagery has more information in each pixel we collect, and this massive pipeline of data fuels our Geospatial Big Data platform and unique analytic solutions.” 

 

Staff writer Amy Svitak contributed to this report.