The Profit…is Out There
Progress in digital imaging and satellite technologies will enable a new era of resource-tracking and resource management. How will environmentalists, governments, and investors capitalize on this new technology?
The first digital camera was developed by Kodak engineer, Steven Sasson, in 1975. The resolution was 0.01 megapixels and it took 23 seconds to take the first digital picture. Eighteen years prior, in 1957 the Soviet Union successfully launched the first satellite, Sputnik I after spending millions of dollars. Shortly thereafter, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a dog into space. The Soviet Union had accomplished an incredible feat, and triggered the space race. The first computer, invented in the late 1940’s, weighed over 50 tons and took up 1,800 square feet.
Luckily for us, technology has improved since. In fact, in 1965, Gordon Moore developed the theory that every two years, the processing power of computers will double as twice as many chips can fit on each board. Known as Moore’s Law, this hypothesis has held true for the last 50 years, and technology has improved at an exponential rate.  Now, the cost of launching satellites into orbit can be as low as $40,000 (Cubesat).
In 2016, URSA Space Systems is beginning to commercialize the field of satellite imagery. As processing power has increased dramatically, vast amounts of data can not only be collected but also analyzed and processed in a meaningful way. URSA Space Systems is going to launch strings of synchronized satellites into the atmosphere, and take constant real-time images of the Earth’s surface. They currently are developing capabilities to provide imaging of any area at 12 hour intervals, and 3-meter resolution imagery. Their business model derives revenues through subscription services to imaging and analysis, with premium packages available for higher frequency updates to data. These high-resolution images can be taken through the cloud layer, through smog, and despite darkness.
(Concept Art from competitor, Planet Imaging, www.planet.com)
URSA Space Systems is currently providing imaging, tracking, and analysis services for the oil industry, shipping, and commodities. By tracking the utilization of oil tanks, shipping lanes, and commodity piles, they are providing data that is otherwise extremely difficult to obtain – especially in regions throughout China, where reported data is unreliable. Having real-time objective data indicating the utilization, stockpiles, and volume of commodities around the world can lead to great information advantages for traders and investors. Approximately $15.6 million in commodities contracts are traded per day, and the impact of global commodities markets would also affect the nearly $4 trillion daily market for currencies. 
(Ursa Space Systems Website)
While their current operating model depends on providing value to these three industry groups, going forward, the data and services provided by URSA Space Systems will be of high value to a variety of other industries as well:
- Cars in Lots – Investors can use the high resolution imaging systems to track the number of vehicles in parking lots over time, and use the volume of traffic as a leading indicator of sales volume. For example, one could in theory look at the number of vehicles at every single Walmart store on earth, and model out a forecast for the next quarter’s sales. This information could prove to be extremely valuable as you bet against the market.
- Fire Management – Emergency response services can use the real time imaging to rapidly assess areas hardest hit by disasters such as flooding, fire, or hurricanes. This real-time analysis can lead to faster and more efficient responses. The new Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and SWIR technologies can help fire control in particular, as the images can illustrate more valuable data than mere optical imaging, and can see through smoke and smog.
- Forest and Agriculture Management – URSA Space Systems’ digital imaging satellites can enable countries and companies to protect their timber resources from illegal logging in real time, and enable a fast response. Farmers and agriculture investors can analyze the health and yield of not just their own crops, but those around the world in order to better forecast and understand future supply and demand in the marketplace. 
(Illustration of SWIR Radar technology imaging from competitor, Digital Globe)
Ultimately this data and analysis provided by URSA could unlock significant efficiencies in a variety of areas.
The potential market opportunity for this type of business is very high, and multiple competitors have entered the market in recent years. Strategically, URSA Space Systems needs to acknowledge that its customer promise relies on the quantity, quality, and analysis of the data they provide. As competitors continue to enter this lucrative space, URSA should strive to achieve a large first mover advantage and construct barriers to entry for other players. Often in the venture capital space, this ‘Land Grab’ strategy relies on vast amounts of fundraised capital, to crowd out future competitors. So far they have only raised $104,000 in seed funding, according to Crunchbase, and if they want to survive the upcoming race to the thermosphere, they must be prepared to use the capital markets as rocket fuel.
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1. Zhang, Michael, The World’s First Digital Camera and Steve Sasson, Peta Pixel Website, August 5, 2010.
2. Garber, Steve, Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age, Nasa Website, Updated, October 10, 2007.
3. When Was The First Computer Invented, Computer Hope.
4. Sneed, Annie, Moore’s Law Keeps Going Defying Expectations, The Scientific American, May 19, 2015. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/moore-s-law-keeps-going-defying-expectations/
5. Farnham, Alan, Do it Yourself Satellites, ABC News, September 6, 2012.
6. Tom Lauricella and Dave Kansas, Currency Trading Soars, The Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2010. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704421104575463901973510496
7. Ursa Space Systems Company Website.
8. Young, Deke, Use Cases for SWIR Imagery, Digital Globe Blog, October 29, 2015.
Use cases for SWIR imagery – taking a closer look – part 2 of 2
9. Ursa Space Systems Company Profile, Crunchbase.
10. Planet Company Website.
Student comments on The Profit…is Out There
I love this technology. I saw a demo of Google’s version this summer and was very impressed, especially by the fact that the computer can actually measure the quantity of oil in a tank, for example. You mentioned the parking lot example, which I think is hugely valuable for an investor betting around earnings announcements. This technology is also used by militaries to determine enemy equipment type/location and monitor potential nuclear activity. Most notably, we have been using it to watch China as it builds military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea.
With all this said, I also worry about the privacy implications of cameras this powerful looking at my back yard while I sunbathe or looking through people’s sunroofs. It’s impossible to imagine a world in 50 years where we enjoy half of the privacy we have now.
This is incredible technology – I definitely agree that there are a lot of potential markets applications for this. I agree with AJ regarding the privacy issue, though – I’m not terribly offended by satellite images of commodities stockpiles, but I think the line between public and private domains will continue to be blurred in disturbing ways as this technology is used more broadly. I would be interested to see if laws and regulations are starting to catch up to this.
Cool post! Just wanted to comment quickly on the finance / investing use case – we looked at a few companies that do something similar (https://orbitalinsight.com/ and https://www.rsmetrics.com/). We ended up passing on the deals due to an inherent flaw in the market size – although this data can be really valuable, that value dissipates the more widely you distribute it (if everyone has the edge, it’s no longer truly an edge). As a result, I find the intelligence use cases a lot more compelling – interested to see how this evolves.
Thanks for a really interesting post. I can see how this technology and data is tremendously valuable as it is provided in (approximately) real-time and is based on actual imagery, probably making it more accurate compared to relying on public reports or other forms of information gathering.
This does, however, raise significant questions about privacy, as URSA will likely have plenty of information about everyday people and happenings around the world unrelated to their clients’ requests. How do/will they manage and secure the tremendous amount of data that they gather?
Separately, while perhaps an obvious point, there are plenty of actors in the world that don’t necessarily want information about their activities to be monitored and made available by a private company like URSA Space Systems. Primarily, I think about government and military actors that may for security reasons want certain activities to remain clandestine. On a larger level, for any actor that wouldn’t want this kind of information to be available and as it proliferates, will only further drives these types of actors to take steps to conceal their activities (I think that this type of technology probably has already driven this kind of behavior). In other words, this type of technology may change behavior to make activity less visible and observable from above (when possible).