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Earth Observation Market Sees Growth in 3D Mapping and Multi-Sensor Solutions

By Rachel Jewett | September 15, 2022

Executives from ImageSat International, Maxar Technologies, BlackSky, MDA, Airbus, and Planet at World Satellite Business Week. Photo: Via Satellite

PARIS — Defense and intelligence customers for satellite imagery are demanding real-time and more precise imagery and monitoring, multi-sensor datasets, and 3D mapping technologies, Earth observation (EO) operators said Thursday at World Satellite Business Week in Paris.

Executives from Maxar Technologies, Airbus, MDA, BlackSky, Planet, e-GEOS and ImageSat International (ISI) talked about how these developing technologies are driving demand in the industry, which is evolving from primarily selling imagery to selling monitoring, data products, and insights. 

Maxar and Airbus in particular highlighted the opportunity in 3D modeling and mapping, and both companies are investing in the technology. 

Jon Love, vice president of Strategic Growth for Maxar, said the company sees demand in 3D on the military side for synthetic training, and “metaverse” potential on the commercial side for mapping. 

“Half of what we sold in 3D last year was not only used for synthetic training, but it was actually used in theater for real operations. Think about the importance associated with that —[for] a soldier in the battlefield relying on this data, it has to be accurate, timely, and refreshed with the latest updates. It has to be able to operate in GPS-denied environments,” Love said. “It’s the future. It’s coming fast and all of this capability being deployed today is going to feed into that.” 

François Lombard, senior vice president of Airbus Defence & Space – Intelligence said Airbus is getting a lot of requests for location-based models, but it requires very precise imagery, and combining space, ground, and AI capabilities. The company invested in the global digital elevation model as part of pursuing this opportunity. 

Multi-sensor capabilities was another theme of the conversation. Combining multiple types of data into products is critical to give customers a wider view of what is happening, they said, and the companies partner with each other and other companies to provide that. BlackSky, for example, recently secured reseller rights to different tasking and archive imagery products owned by Airbus to enhance its Spectra AI software. 

“We’re seeing a lot of collaboration across different phenomenologies and solving the unique use cases that our customers have. There’s no one data source that does it, it’s interoperable,” said Robbie Schingler, chief strategy officer of Planet. “I see a greater amount of collaboration beginning to open up the market as it gets to the cloud, as you allow for data scientists and software developers to get access to the power of Earth observation for new applications.”

There is growing investment in multi-sensor satellites and constellations as well. ISI, based in Israel, and e-GEOS, based in Italy, announced last year they are developing an optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) constellation. Iceye and Satlantis, which were not on the panel, announced a similar project on Thursday. 

MDA, which operates the SAR Radarsat constellation, is working on plans for its future Chorus constellation combining C-band and X-band SAR capabilities, in partnership with Iceye. 

MDA CEO Mike Greenley said government demand is driving this multi-sensor adoption. While the industry has worked to commercialize its products, it still remains highlighly defense and intelligence focused. 

“As we’ve been developing multi-sensor platforms for maritime domain awareness and illegal fishing that pull together multiple information sources in near real-time to create the informatics, [these products] largely depend on intelligence and/or government customers providing that anchor base, and commercializing from there,” Greenley said. 

Noam Segal, CEO of ISI, emphasized the reliance on government contracts. “It’s clear to all of us here — if it wasn’t in 2015 — that this is a DNI [defense and intelligence] and government industry,” Segal said. “When we are facing the end of cheap money in the market, we are all really dependent on government contracts to sustain the businesses, especially [companies] that are proud of being vertically vertically integrated, because your OpEx and CapEx are huge.”

Segal said that instead of purchasing imagery from smallsat EO operators, he observes a trend of governments wanting to own their EO capabilities. “Government ownership of defensive equipment is freedom,” he said. 

Schingler of Planet believes the industry is poised for a pivot toward more commercial activity in the next two to three years with macro trends of sustainability and digitalization of workflows. Planet is pursuing a partnership model to go after non-governmental customers who are extremely close to their communities’ use cases. 

“We are maniacally focused on partnering and allowing new businesses and companies to get off the ground that are focused on a specific use case in a specific sub-vertical, in a specific large vertical market,” Schingler. For example, instead of an industry like agriculture, these small partners drill all the way down to a specific customer pain point to “solve the problem that’s going to accelerate value for them.”

He cited “dozens and dozens” of companies pursuing this with Planet, many of them small companies based in Europe. “We are partner-focused, enabling new businesses to build on top of the real-time insights world that is coming.”