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Apogeo Q&A: Skybox Imaging

First Video from Space

Apogeo Q&A: Skybox Imaging

APOGEO What is Skybox Imaging?

SKYBOX Skybox is a data and analysis company that extracts information from satellite imagery. From the number of ships in the Panama Canal to the volume of oil in a Saudi refinery, we approach the world as one enormous data science problem with a focus on providing global businesses access to timely imagery, video, and analytics to help them make smarter, more informed business decisions.

We launched our first high-resolution imaging and video- capable satellite, SkySat-1, in Nov. 2013; SkySat-2 is scheduled to launch around the middle of this year aboard a Soyuz rocket, followed by SkySat-3, which is scheduled to launch in late 2014. Looking ahead beyond 2014, we are on track to launch our first block of six commercial high-resolution imaging and video-capable satellites from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard an Orbital Sciences Minotaur-C launch vehicle. We plan to have our full constellation of 24 satellites in orbit within the next five years, at which point we will be able to revisit any point on Earth up to five to seven times per day.

The Skybox founders, Dan Berkenstock, Julian Mann, John Fenwick, and Ching-Yu Hu, met in a graduate entrepreneurship class at Stanford in 2008 where they wrote the first business plan for Skybox as part of the class project. We were incorporated shortly thereafter.

Editor's Note

All images are from SkySat-1, which was launched in Nov. 2013.

APOGEO What sensors do your satellites carry? Who built them? Do you plan to add different sensors in the future?

SKYBOX We completely designed, built, and tested our first two satellites in house: SkySat-1 and SkySat-2. Over the last few years, we have designed a completely new imaging chain comprising high performance optics, sensors, and cameras.

Our satellites use a silicon carbide-based Ritchey Chretien telescope design, dramatically limiting complexity while simultaneously improving performance across a wide thermal range.

SkySats utilize a ground-breaking two- dimensional staring sensor, in contrast to the traditional line sensors used in legacy systems. This improves image quality by acquiring large numbers of images that can be overlaid on the ground and dramatically reduces complexity in the spacecraft
guidance, navigation, and control system.

FIGURES 1-2. Lake Saroma, Japan images clearly show ice melt in on FIGURE 1. March 27, 2014

Lake Saroma, Japan images clearly show ice melt in on
March 27, 2014

FIGURE 2. March 30, 2014

March 30, 2014

We have designed our satellites in a configuration that allows us to easily add unique sensor modalities based on market demand as we scale the constellation. We recently announced our partnership with SSL/MDA, who will be manufacturing our next 13 satellites. We will continue prototyping next generation systems in house while leveraging SSL/MDA’s manufacturing production capabilities.

APOGEO At what altitude and inclination do your satellites fly? Why did you choose those values?

SKYBOX SkySat-1 is in a 600-km sun-synchronous polar orbit, in Low Earth Orbit. SkySat-2 will be in about the same orbit. SkySat-3 and beyond will have propulsion onboard (provided by ECAPS), which will allow us to lower our altitude to achieve resolution closer to ~75 cm range.

APOGEO What is the downlink bandwidth of your satellites?

SKYBOX 480 mbps

APOGEO Is your data radiometrically corrected?

SKYBOX Our imagery is radiometrically-corrected, panchromatic, multispectral, and pan-sharpened image frames. Products include comprehensive metadata for advanced image processing.

APOGEO Currently, what is your refresh rate for a given pixel on the ground? What will it be once your constellation is fully deployed?

SKYBOX With one satellite, we can see any spot on Earth roughly once every three days. At scale, we will be able to see any spot on Earth five to seven times per day.

APOGEO How will you deliver data to customers?

SKYBOX It is a combination of direct distribution to certain customers as well as indirectly through our distribution partners.

APOGEO What is your business model?

SKYBOX We’re uniquely focused on empowering global businesses to make better decisions on a daily basis with high-resolution (sub-meter), high-temporal imaging and derived analytics. No other provider in the market is delivering sub-meter imagery and high-res full motion HD video today. We have 3 products lines:

1. Access: Compact ground stations called SkyNodes enable customers to directly task satellites and downlink images from the constellation. Recently announced customers include EUSI, SIME, and JSI (Mitsubishi/Hitachi). 

2. Imagery and Video: We sell subscriptions for high-resolution images and video to customers in agriculture, financial services, consumer mapping portals, etc. 

We collect both panchromatic and multi- spectral images. The multispectral bands are red, green, blue, and near infrared. We fuse the panchromatic images with the multispectral images to generate pan-sharpened color images that we deliver at 90-cm resolution.

We collect panchromatic high-definition video, in clips up to 90 seconds long with 30 frames per second at a resolution of 1.1 meters. 

3. Analytics: We sell analysis reports derived from images and video from the Skybox constellation combined with external data sources describing activity on Earth’s surface, such as changes in oil storage tank volumes, car counting, and pre/post crises analysis. 

APOGEO How does your operation differ from that of new cubesat entrants?

SKYBOX We’re excited about the many emerging players who are taking advantage of low-cost commercial electronics in space as well as lower cost access to launch. Those two factors are going to drive a tremendous amount of innovation, investment, and job creation over the next decade. We are similar to Planet Labs and other emerging cubesat companies in that regard. Beyond that, we don’t typically compare ourselves because we operate in completely different industries.

Our original business plan at Skybox used cubesats, but we found that the best quality imagery that the laws of physics would allow us to capture was similar to imagery with resolution of 10-15 m that is already freely available today.

That class of imagery is useful for observing large-scale ecological processes, such as coastline erosion and changes in geologic features. There is an important need for that type of data, which today is primarily served by freely available Landsat data covering Earth’s complete surface every 17 days in a wide variety of spectral channels at very high radiometric precision.

At Skybox, we were driven by the idea of building a transformational data source with the potential to impact how billions of consumers, businesses, and governments live their daily lives. We quickly realized that doing so required something fundamentally different than the cubesats we had been designing. Understanding macro trends across our globe related to transportation, infrastructure, natural resources, and commodities requires being able to see the things that move on a daily basis,such as cars and trucks. In order to identify those things that resonated with leaders of global organizations, we knew that we had to design a spacecraft that could capture imagery at better than 1-meter resolution.

What we did not know at the time was that only a handful of governments and government- derived satellites had ever accomplished that before. Even more, we had to do it at a price point that would allow us to launch the more than 24 spacecraft in carefully designed orbits that would be required to see the places and things that matter on a very frequent basis.

To do this, we completely re-invented high- performance space imaging from a blank sheet of paper. We designed more than 20 complex boards from scratch providing high quality imagery capture and on-orbit processing; we developed completely new designs for radios, for complex systems for accurate pointing, and for a large number of other systems that cannot be ordered from any catalog. We also built a scalable and flexible ground data system in Hadoop that allows us to store, process, and publish satellite imagery in an extremely cost- effective way.


FIGURES 3-4. Mahajamba, Madagascar on April 9, 2014, with Figure 3 shown in color infrared

Mahajamba, Madagascar on April 9, 2014, with Figure 3 shown in color infrared

APOGEO What do you expect to be your most important or lucrative markets? Of the many new applications that are being made possible by the lower prices for Earth observation data and by the greater coverage and shorter refresh times, which ones do you expect to generate the most business for you?

SKYBOX We see huge potential for helping the Fortune 500 enterprises monitor global supply chains and global infrastructure. We can help them answer questions that impact their businesses:

 Is there an encroachment on my pipeline? Is my remote facility secure? 

 What is the extent of the environmental impact of my factories around the world? 

 Where are the open evacuation routes after a hurricane? 

 What are the corn crop yields? 

FIGURE 5. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 26, 2014

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 26, 2014

A few examples of other applications include:

Asset assessment and monitoring for insurance companies
In 2011, the United States suffered a total of $380 billion in property losses. Insurance companies can more accurately tailor their services by better understanding and predicting the associated risks. Timely satellite imagery and derived data can be used for risk modeling, underwriting, damage assessment, response/claims management, and monitoring high value assets (including refineries, nuclear power plant facilities, etc.). 

Port monitoring
Today, ports handle more than 90 percent of the world’s cargo. Shipping companies, ship owners, cargo users and commodity traders currently face a tremendous amount of uncertainty regarding the movement and location of ships and cargo worldwide. The maritime industry would greatly benefit from cross-referencing currently available ship tracking data with responsive, sustained, and accurate satellite imagery of key maritime ports. 

 Deforestation monitoring
With sub-meter resolution, Skybox can rapidly provide individual counts of trees burned in a forest, as well as video and alerts of slash-and-burn activities. 

 Precision Agriculture
For many agricultural customers, it is cost-prohibitive today to monitor global crop health estimates on a global basis. We can provide crop yield estimates and vegetation health analysis on a crop row-by-row basis, instead of doing so for an entire cropland, enabling more accurate employment of fertilizer and irrigation. 

 Natural disasters
First responders to natural disasters need immediate situational awareness about impacted areas. Not only do they need a rapid view from overhead, they need high enough image quality to efficiently interpret the impact of the disaster (collapsed buildings, closed roads, car movements). 

 Conflict Area Monitoring Humanitarian crises are ongoing around the globe, with new incidents emerging every day. We believe that our constellation’s daily coverage with both still imagery and video will provide greater transparency into these hot spots. A few weeks ago, we captured several images and video of the violent riots in Kiev. More recently, we have been taking images and video in search of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. 

APOGEO Approximately how much do you charge for data and various information products?

SKYBOX Over the last decade, there have been numerous Earth observation industry reports predicting substantial growth in the commercial imaging market. We have talked to hundreds of customers since our inception, and we have found that it has never materialized due to several factors, including the cost of high quality imagery, the difficulty in accessing high quality imagery, when customers need it.

We have designed our pricing model to directly meet the first two industry blockers. Even though we have not publicly released our pricing (we plan on doing so soon), what we can say at this point is that our pricing is simple and affordable. Our pricing sheet fits on half an 81⁄2 x 11 inch page. Our licensing sheet fits on a single page; there are no hidden bells and whistles that make it difficult for our customers to buy imagery from us. We also see a great deal of opportunity in the future to open the market to new users by tailoring our basic pric- ing to fit the timeliness and area of interest of customers.

APOGEO Will you develop specific information products for customers or is it up to them to develop the specific information they need from your raw data?

SKYBOX Both. We will develop a subset of information products for customers and will let customers bring their algorithms to our data platform for their specific use cases.

APOGEO When did you actually begin to deliver data to customers?

SKYBOX We are delivering SkySat-1 imagery and video data to paying customers and deploying SkyNodes around the world. We have been selling imagery and video from SkySat-1 over the last few months. If you haven’t already, check out our image and video gallery here: firstimagery.skybox.com.

APOGEO What do you mean by “infinite analytics”?

SKYBOX Thinking more long-term, we envision that by the end of this decade, the vast majority of the Fortune 500 will have the ability to make better business decisions on a daily basis using high- resolution imagery and analytics derived from imagery—whether to better understand how to manage their supply chains depending on port activity, or deciding how to irrigate their crops based on daily crop yield estimates on a parcel basis—all with the help of our satellite imagery.

FIGURE 6. Murmansk, Russia, March 31, 2014

Murmansk, Russia, March 31, 2014

Contributor / Pale Blue Dot, LLC Portland, Org / www.palebluedotllc.com