To make nuclear bombs, you float a gaseous uranium compound down long distances until molecules with the heavier U-238 isotope fall away, leaving only highly fissionable U-235. That’s why during the Cold War the U.S. flew U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union to film the ground, so that analysts with lightboards and magnifying glasses could study photos looking for long, narrow buildings. And you thought your job was tedious? We’ve come a long way. But that was a while ago—what’s possible today?
To find out, I recently spent some (Zoom) time with
CEO of Maxar Technologies, a Westminster, Colo.-based satellite and imaging company that, as far as I can tell, is the state of the art.
Circling every 94 minutes, Maxar’s satellites survey 3.5 million square kilometers of the Earth every day to capture images that are accurate down to a meter and are stored in a massive data set. Each satellite’s camera can be swung up to 50 degrees from overhead. Maxar has 17 years of imaging history. It stores 120 petabytes of data on Amazon’s servers.
The military, naturally, is its most important customer. Maxar’s data set and 3-D point clouds can track enemy missile launchers or tanks or anything else, and note changes in case of a threat. Generals then have the option, as Mr. Jablonsky put it with one of my new favorite expressions, to “send kinetic energy down range.”
Google Maps is a customer too, using the imagery to help create maps and look for changes—the shops in an average strip mall turn over by 25% every year. Autonomous-vehicle manufacturers will be an emerging market, to map terrain and then to deal with the growing complexity of insurance. Google probably doesn’t want to be liable in an accident, so autonomous car makers may need to purchase their own mapping data.
This year Maxar starts a big upgrade. For “$600 million all in, launched and insured,” Mr. Jablonsky tells me, six new satellites known as Worldview Legion will have 50% more coverage and higher accuracy, down to a third of a meter. They’ll fly both polar and other loops so they can revisit the same site up to 15 times a day. For commercial uses, I think this might put the U.S. five years ahead of anyone else—maybe 10.
But here’s where it gets fascinating. Mr. Jablonsky talks of Maxar’s plan, with all its data, to create a “digital twin of the planet”—basically a 3-D model of the world that can be updated almost in real time. That’s perfect for flight simulators but eventually can allow optical navigation for aircraft to fly without GPS. Think of an automated Drone Racing League with jet fighters. The 3-D model is key: Russia jammed GPS during its adventures in Ukraine. And anyone who read
“Red Storm Rising” knows that when a hot war starts, the first things taken out are the communications and navigation satellites.
A little dreaming reveals lots of new markets for Earth’s digital twin. Mr. Jablonsky notes that there are tons of drones flying around taking images that don’t really know where they are. Gaming could be a huge market—envision battle simulations based on real maps and 3-D models.
augmented-reality Pokémon Go craze from 2016 could use an update. Imagine our world with digital creatures to interact with or (more likely) eliminate! Then think of the billions of smartphone cameras and the database of images that can be mapped to the real world.
There is competition from the low end. The Journal’s Christopher Mims recently wrote about Lacuna Space, Swarm Technologies and other emerging satellite companies that hope to track everything from container ships to penguins. Fascinating applications—there’s room for a few players in this market.
The history of Silicon Valley is disruption via lower-cost solutions to everything: computers, phones, media, video and on and on. But there’s a paradox very few talk about. Sometimes the best solution comes from the highest-cost solution because you can push the state of the art before others. Like
microprocessors until recently. And Google search. And Amazon Web Services. The trick is to spend the most on fixed assets and then charge a marginal rate to customers. Sometimes, as with software, the marginal cost is zero, so you can charge what the market can bear. Maybe that’s true with satellites too. The military pays a big chunk of the cost of the system, but there’s little additional cost to provide maps and other imaging services downstream.
With eyes in the sky, do I worry about privacy? Sure—a friend snooping my house on Google Maps once asked if I had bought a new car. Technology is always multiuse: military, commercial, gaming. But it’s often the things no one thought about that are the most exciting. When GPS first went up, no one thought that Uber and
would be one of its best use cases. Same for telemedicine with smartphone cameras. Each time, we give up a little of our privacy but gain huge benefits. With sensible controls, I think that’s a worthy trade-off.
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