Orbital Insight does not operate its own satellites. Nor does SpaceKnow or Descartes Labs. The start-ups buy their data from a growing number of satellite operators, and they build the automated systems that analyze the data, pinpointing objects like cars, buildings, mines and oil tankers in high-resolution photos and other images.
Now, satellite operators are building similar systems, selling analysis as well as the raw data. The market topped $4.6 billion in 2017. By 2027, it will reach $11.4 billion, according to Euroconsult.
What began with satellite cameras is rapidly expanding to infrared sensors that detect heat; “hyperspectral” sensors that identify minerals, vegetation and other materials; and radar scanners that can build three-dimensional images of the landscape below. As it reconstructs the Guangdong economic index, SpaceKnow uses infrared imagery, which can help show activity around roughly 600 factories and other industrial sites in the province.
After a new satellite went up in December, a Virginia start-up called HawkEye 360 will soon track wireless signals — a way of understanding the behavior of everything from cellphone networks to cargo ships. This could provide new insight in the progress of cellular companies like AT&T and Verizon, including how many cellular towers are in operation, how active they are, and what technologies and wireless bands are being used.
But as technology improves and costs drop, some still warn satellite intelligence gathering has its limits. Finding useful information in satellite imagery can be expensive, said Shawana Johnson, a veteran of satellite intelligence work who is now the president of Global Marketing Insights, a consulting firm dedicated to this area.
“You have to want to look at a variety of activities across the Earth and look at them daily — or weekly — for the cost to makes sense,” she said.
Others question how useful this data is, particularly for market traders. John Alberg, a data and machine learning specialist who co-founded the investment firm Euclidean Technologies, said traders could find more important and detailed information about companies here on Earth.