How satellites are changing everything

A new kind of accountability
For a world in which people are constantly connected to one another through the Internet and mobile devices, our ability to look at the Earth from space is surprisingly limited. Google Earth allows us to see almost any point on the planet, to be sure. But the image that Google provides is static – usually, between one and three years old. Most people have no way of seeing the Earth in real time.

“How many trees were cut down yesterday around the planet? How much coal was mined yesterday or last week or last month? The basic infrastructure doesn’t exist to answer those questions at all,” says Andrews of BlackSky Global.

[However,] cheaper, more readily available satellite imagery promises to change the way that many organizations operate. [When the planned networks of small satellites come online, we will be able to monitor the global economy in real time.] Companies will be able to closely monitor their competitors, and investors will have a better idea of how their investment targets operate.

Andrews points out that satellite imagery will help many companies streamline their processes – for example, oil and gas companies that have to monitor their pipelines for leaks. Instead of sending workers out in trucks to check out pipelines, in the future these companies can sit back and watch from space.
Faster satellite imagery will also have big consequences for people working in security and defense, for example helping monitor troop movements and drug trafficking. It will be helpful to international groups that monitor climate change, illegal logging and certain human rights abuses.

The broader availability of satellite imagery could also raise privacy concerns. The United States and other countries are now competing to let their domestic companies offer the highest-resolution images. Images that are sharp enough to identify people -- technology that was previously only available to governments -- is increasingly available to anyone willing to pay for it.

But this democratization of data about the planet could also change the way that society functions for the better. “People do illegal logging, fishing and dumping because no one is looking," says Andrews of BlackSky Global. "If you can look from space, suddenly it forces accountability, on people, corporations and governments.”

Some things that can be measured currently
—Number of cars using a parking lot outside a mega store
—Size of illegal markets in North Korea
—Size of seaweed farms, illegal logging operations, farmed cropland
—How green farms are
—How much oil is in oil tanks
—How many lights in an economy or on oil shale fields
—How many solar power installations or wind farms
—How tall buildings are in Chinese New Cities

This is the future btw, not the present
As the cost of building and launching satellites drops, companies are able to launch dozens of satellites that cast a web of sensors over the Earth. Since companies are launching so many, they are able to make more frequent updates to the satellite software, and it's not as big of a deal if one of the satellites happens to fail.

At that point, satellite companies will have the ability to take a picture of the same piece of ground dozens of times in the same day. The map below, from BlackSky Global, shows the places their satellites will be revisiting most -- up to 72 times per day in the red regions.(See picture above)

Industry players say that, in less than a year, several platforms could be competing to allow people to request photographs of almost any spot on the globe, with the image available in just a few hours.