Google Owns a Satellite Now

To understand the behemoth’s $500 million purchase of Skybox Imaging, don’t look to the sky. The clouds will do just fine. 
Skybox claims it can consolidate useful data about the world, like the number of shipping containers at a certain port (Skybox Imaging)

Google will buy the micro-satellite startup Skybox Imaging for $500 million, the company announced today.

While the deal isn’t yet closed, it’s a big moment. I mean, Google owns satellites now! And the deal falls into a pattern we’ve seen so far in 2014, of big companies chasing the next wave of revenue, by entering new markets through acquisitions.

Skybox, after all, is only one of many similar small-satellite startups. Google seems to have long been hankering for a small satellite manufacturer. The two are even both located in Mountain View, California.

But I think there’s something more here, something that makes Google’s purchase of Skybox different than any old Silicon Valley acquisition. Skybox isn’t just a plain-old satellite company, or even a plain-old satellite startup. Google’s purchase might signal a new product—a new area of sincere competition—for the web’s primo ad monger.

Skybox’s Satellites Are Different

As I wrote in January, the ability to send small satellites into space has changed the satellite industry: Instead of hurling singular and unique devices beyond the atmosphere, with multi-million-dollar price tags and reams of insurance; companies can now send many cheaper probes into orbit. The increase in the number of devices has let companies specialize in mass-producing its parts, which has also brought down costs. 

There are many companies planning to put cameras in the sky; some remain in stealth mode. But of this new crop of small-satellite startups, Skybox often seemed the most enterprising.

Planet Lab's satellites are smaller than Skybox’s. (Planet Labs) 

First, Skybox’s satellites capture video—the first commercially available, high-resolution video of Earth. Many of Skybox’s competitors only aspire to medium- or high-resolution still photography. Planet Labs, for instance, makes smaller satellites than Skybox, so while it can send more “birds” into space, its imagery will never be as good. Nor will its imagery move. Urthecast, a Vancouver-based competitor, offers high-resolution video imagery, but it has no satellite of its own. It parks its camera instead on the Russian end of the International Space Station. Two European engineering firms—the German Dauria Aerospace and the Spanish Elecnor Deimos—recently announced their own constellation of tiny, Earth-observing satellites, but they don’t anticipate sending any into space until 2015. 

So far, Skybox’s satellites differ from all these firms. Note though, if even some of these companies succeed, a deluge of imagery will follow them. Hundreds of Earth-observing satellites means there will be at least thousands of new photographs everyday. Who will look at all those pictures?

This is Skybox’s second strength.

Skybox’s Business Could Be Different

Skybox Imaging

Right now, the raw imagery created by satellite cameras can be hard to decode and process for non-experts. Therefore, many companies like Skybox hope to sell “information, not imagery.” Instead of pixels, they’ll give customers algorithmically-harvested assessments of what’s in the pixels. For example, using regular satellite-collected data, an algorithm could theoretically look for leaks in an Arctic pipeline and alert the pipeline’s owners when one appeared. Another could estimate the number of cars in all the Wal-Mart parking lots in America on Black Friday, to better estimate the company’s quarterly earnings.

Note the word theoretically. Algorithms that can scan and successfully detect that level of detail don’t seem to exist yet. Facebook bought an Israeli facial recognition company in 2012 for an undisclosed price, in part because it can process pixelated specificity.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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