This month, laws quietly changed that made it legal to sell higher resolution satellite photos commercially. That means that folks like Google can take a closer look at you. But wait, there’s more… (isn’t there always?)
Google recently bought a company called Skybox Imaging for a mere half a billion. Skybox, according to an article by Christopher Mims in the June 16th Wall Street Journal, puts satellites into orbit about 185 miles up, “on the tip of the same Russian missiles that once threated the U.S. with nuclear destruction.”
Within two years, the article notes, Google will be able to take these higher resolution photos twice a day. Two years later, when its entire fleet of 24 satellites has launched, they’ll be imaging the entire earth at sufficient resolution to capture real-time video of cars driving down the highway, and doing it three times a day.
Think of the possibilities.
Today, there are only nine satellites in orbit that can capture hi-res images commercially, and most are used for national security purposes. Most pictures you see today are of poor quality and years out of date. That will change in a hurry.
The higher resolution photos, when coupled with the latest software, means that even if the optic images themselves can’t display, say, individual people, the clever software just might.
This shifts the needle for Google, which today makes most of its money by selling search results. Or in the words of Skybox co-founder Dan Berkenstock, “We think we are going to fundamentally change humanity’s understanding of the economic landscape on a daily basis.”
This extends beyond using your cellphone app to see if you left the house lights on. As an analyst at UBS discovered a few years ago, if he bought satellite images of Wal-Mart parking lots, he could predict the company’s sales figures before they were revealed in its quarterly reports. Berkenstock adds that they’re looking at FoxConn (the Asian mega-supplier of electronics used in most of our devices today, that we first introduced you to four years ago here) every day, because “measuring the density of trucks outside [its] facilities tells Skybox when the next iPhone will be released.”
Google, through its Skybox acquisition, will inevitably and soon take data into the much more critical realm of information.
The ability to, as Sims puts it, “spy on competitors or monitor your supplier’s supplier’s supplier could be tremendously useful.” And now, Google’s Skybox satellites will sit smack in the middle of that equation, simply by charging a licensing fee for the underlying satellite data. Or, for that matter, it could become a ridiculously profitable hedge fund based on a whole new level of product and economic intelligence.
In the short term, Google says it plans simply to use the information to create better maps.
In the long term, you’ll be able to look up in the sky and wonder, is someone looking back at me?