Alphabet Satellite Imaging Company Terra Bella To Power Next-Generation Maps

  • Alphabet company Terra Bella will operate a fleet of high-tech Earth observation satellites.
  • Terra Bella will take advantage of Alphabet's cloud computing and AI capabilities for rapid automatic data analysis.
  • Next-generation mapping will transform our ability to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Alphabet Inc-A (NASDAQ:GOOGL) will launch and operate a constellation of Earth observation satellites for next-generation mapping and geospatial applications. Skybox Imaging, a subsidiary providing commercial high-resolution Earth observation satellite imagery, high-definition video, and analytics services, was re-branded as Terra Bella and announced new, ambitious plans.

Founded in 2009, Skybox Imaging was acquired by Google in 2014 for $500 million after having raised a total of U.S. $91 million of private capital. The company launched its first satellite, SkySat-1, in November 2013, followed by SkySat-2 in July 2014.

"Seven years ago, we started Skybox Imaging with the vision of a new era in space technology," say the company's founders Dan Berkenstock, John Fenwick, and Ching-Yu Hu. "As Google revolutionized search for the online world, we have set our eyes on pioneering the search for patterns of change in the physical world. There is an incredible opportunity for geospatial information to transform our ability to meet the economic, societal, and humanitarian challenges of the 21st century."

Terra Bella is still a part of Google and not yet an independent subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet. It seems plausible that Terra Bella could become a stand-alone Alphabet company after a period of incubation under Google.

The resolution of its SkySat satellite imagery and videos is less than one meter, high enough to observe objects that impact the global economy like terrain, cars and shipping containers. According to the company, SkySat satellites can also capture video clips lasting up to 90 seconds at 30 frames per second.

"We are building an entirely new class of imaging satellites," notes the brand new Terra Bella website. "We’ve developed a high-resolution, small satellite platform capable of rapid response, high-resolution imagery at a fraction of the cost of traditional imaging satellites. We also use a two-dimensional sensor array with a proprietary image filter to capture a higher quality image by taking multiple frames per second and stitching them on the ground. This also gives us the ability to capture the first-ever commercial high-resolution video of Earth from a satellite."

Terra Bella has more than a dozen satellites under development, scheduled to launch over the next few years. "As we continue to grow our constellation, we will be able to construct a living, breathing snapshot of any location in the world within hours, and tackle more problems around the globe," notes the Terra Bella website. In fact, multi-satellite constellations permit re-visiting the same target location every few hours.

Satellite images are extremely useful for military and civilian applications, including commercial applications. However, what is really useful is not raw imagery, but the information that can be derived from the images. As an Alphabet company, Terra Bella is able to take advantage of the huge computing infrastructure of its parent company, including a wide array of geospatial data sources, advanced cloud computing systems, and emerging Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, to extract useful information from the raw data in a timely, highly automated way.

Apart from military spy satellites, there are many commercial Earth observation satellites in orbit, able to deliver frequently updated high-resolution satellite images of the planet. One of the market leaders is Digital Globe DigitalGlobe (NYSE:DGI), which operates satellites able to deliver imagery of up to half a meter resolution.

Satellite Earth observation used to be dominated by large aerospace contractors, not particularly innovative or cost-effective, but Terra Bella brings a "lean and mean" Silicon Valley spirit to the satellite business and promises to bring down the costs of satellite development and operation. The Atlantic notes that Terra Bella is a company "of 2010s vintage: funded with venture capital, well-versed in simulating hardware with software, and comfortable with 'the cloud' and all its metaphors of scale."

The Terra Bella website mentions important applications of high-resolution, high-frequency satellite images and videos like anticipating supply chain changes, aiding in emergency and disaster relief, and tracking mining development.

In 2004, Google acquired Keyhole, a software development company specializing in satellite imagery and geospatial data visualization. Keyhole's flagship application, Earth Viewer, became the highly successful Google Earth application in 2005. Other aspects of Keyhole's core technology have been integrated with Google Mobile and Google Maps.

It seems likely that the imagery provided by the SkySat constellation, and especially the rapid automatic analysis that will permit extracting timely information from raw imagery, will power the next generation of Alphabet's mapping products and contribute to the growth of the Alphabet stock.

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Comments on this article and GOOG stock

I think that Google's Terra Bella has good chances to advance in low-end simple niche of Earth observation market. However, winning a high-profile part of market from DigitalGlobe can be tricky, but still doable
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