Geospatial companies have gone through a rapid evolution over the past 24 months. In 2017, large rounds of funding went to a handful of start-ups spun out from US-based research institutions, providing new technology to a broad range of markets. In 2018, we saw an increase in funding for smaller and leaner solution providers, with market consolidation via restructuring and acquisition by large corporate players further up the satellite value chain. In 2019, we can expect further evolution of market dynamics, via further commoditization of data, new sensors and new value creation across several industries.
2018: A year of consolidation
Large industry players are pivoting downstream to create integrated offerings – via restructuring, acquisition and partnerships. This changes the market dynamics by creating deep-pocketed companies, able to deliver high-resolution imagery at a scale not achievable by most start-ups. These smaller players will need to rely on developing use-cases and applications within specific markets, where deep sector knowledge is needed to compliment technological development.
Planet delivered on ‘Mission 1’ (24/7 monitoring of the entire globe) in 2018, followed by a restructuring to move downstream into geospatial analytics. Planet cut their workforce by less than 10% and re-organized, acquired Boundless Geospatial in December, and Planet Analytics has become an integral part of the company’s future strategy. Maxar Technologies acquired Digital Globe and Radiant Solutions, creating a vertically integrated technology stack seeking long term cost efficiencies. Partnerships have been central to the strategy of large corporates in the satellite value chain such as Airbus and Lockheed. Rather than reorganizing internally, or acquiring innovators, these corporates have signed technology partnerships that could become white-labeled services strategy using innovator’s software.
These full-stack offerings may be a significant threat to start-up geospatial companies in the future, due to the chokehold on the ‘supply chain’ for imagery from companies such as Airbus, Maxar (via SSL & Digital Globe) and Planet. Although hundreds of commercial satellites are set to be launched in coming years, the launch schedule has consistently lagged, meaning that first-mover dominance remains for those with operational EO constellations.
2019: New Data-Enabled Applications
More data will lead to new applications for analytics, delivering value in targeted business activities like environmental monitoring, vegetation management and transport.
Advances in sensor technology are creating a more accurate picture of climate-damaging gases in the air due to industrial activities. GHGSat, a Canadian start-up is developing satellites and software, and Kairos Aerospace is another methane-detection start-up for methane detection via software-based analytics. This asset-light SaaS model enables the company to work with government and commercial satellite companies.
The Oil & Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) invested in both of the companies above, having recently announced its primary goal in reducing methane emissions from the industry by one-fifth by 2025. This investment represents an important shift for the energy industry’s relationship with geospatial, shifting from primarily trading and production-related services towards a more holistic, integrated approach of understanding market dynamics along the down-, mid- and up-stream elements of the energy vertical.
Utility Vegetation Management
Understanding vegetation growth via satellite could be crucial in addressing some of the most pressing issues today. I spoke to Stephen Cieslewitz, a 30-year veteran of the utility vegetation management industry, who suggested that the market size for this area will triple over the coming years, with data-enabled monitoring solutions playing a key role in this emerging market. He points to the threat of vegetation causing billions of dollars of damage by falling trees on transmission power lines, and as the California wildfires have shown, climate change is only going to accelerate the scale and damage of these instances.
When we spoke to Nick Allain from Spire, he pointed to potential new applications for total electron content (TEC) data received by Spire’s constellation of satellites. Previously seen as ‘white noise,’ this data can play an important role in the emergent mobility paradigm in the transportation sector. The company has a huge map of earth’s magnetic field, which effects the GPS signals on autonomous vehicles. If you take that TEC data and put it into an API and allow GPS devices to pull the data, you can pull back a correction formula for that GPS at its actual location – effectively gaining military-level precision in civilian GPS. HERE Technologies, a provider of mapping and integration solutions, is developing geospatial technologies which are facilitating a shift in transportation and logistics towards data-enabled physical infrastructure monitoring. In January 2019, HERE partnered with Fathom Systems, a Bluetooth-based asset-tracking technology provider, to increase supply-chain visibility by using geo-fenced boundaries for real-time asset tracking information.
A second partnership in January 2019 was signed with Audi, selecting HERE as its traffic data provider for North America, delivering real-time traffic updates to drivers. In the future, this type of real-time supply of traffic data will have significant implications for improving smart city transportation systems, where intelligent traffic management systems can be integrated at municipal level, allowing multi-modal transportation options to be delivered in real-time to travelers and commuters.
Two Emerging Geospatial Services Trends for 2019
Two trends to keep an eye on:
- Smaller satellites with smarter instruments and on-board data processing
In-orbit data processing by using GPUs attached to satellites will gain wider usage, with innovators such as HyperScout. In December 2018, HyperScout 1, the first miniaturized hyperspectral imager in space, successfully demonstrated on-board processing of images, before beaming analysis-ready data back down to earth. The provision of analysis-ready data directly from space will significantly lower the operational costs of satellite imagery analytics, due to much less “noise data” needing to be stored on the cloud prior to analysis. This reduces the need for expensive storage of large datasets on servers like Amazon’s AWS, and streamlines the delivery of actionable insights from space data.
NASA’s Cybersecurity Chief, Jeanette Hanna-Ruiz, has spoken of the cyber-threat for satellites, taking data and perhaps even control of the satellite’s movement and trajectory programming. Investors are already putting capital into quantum-encryption technology developers, such as UK-based KETS Quantum Security, which recently raised over $2 million in funding after graduating from the Seraphim Capital Space Camp Accelerator’s second cohort in Q3 2018.