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Remote-sensing companies are the new gold: gathering data from drones and satellites has become realistic for operators to offer. We all know how good Google Maps is from the sky, but if you can get multiple photos throughout the day, it’s not just military-spec usage that becomes useful.
While drone usage is great for peering at lumber yards to check stockpiles (CNN), and make bets on lumber pricing (“I need lumber”), space data is the next level.
Examples include hedge funds spying on Walmart car parks to decide if stock is undervalued, or vehicle inventories at Tesla factories. Then there’s this example that’s completely wild, via The Atlantic:
- “One morning last November, a train carrying 268 wagons of iron ore derailed in the Pilbara Desert, in Western Australia. Iron-ore prices soared on the news that the supply of a resource used in everything from furniture to paper clips could be interrupted.
- “But some traders carefully analyzed satellite images of the accident and saw the ore piled in a flat area where it could easily be reloaded. They bet that prices would soon decline. They were right — within a couple of weeks the panic had subsided, and they had made a fortune.”
Everyone’s getting in on it now:
- The WSJ reports ($) data on the space-data companies shows a pretty clear trend: They raised $5.2 billion last year, up from $1.4 billion in 2015, and through mid-November, companies had raised another $4.5 billion in 2021.
- There are now 800 remote-sensing satellites in orbit, mostly controlled by commercial operators, up from 123 at the end of 2011.
- The setups are not just helping investors make bets. An agriculture firm, Corteva, sells specific satellite data to help farmers boost crop yields and ranchers manage pasture land.
- There’s also a very clear usage for satellites that monitor pollution, such as methane.
- HawkEye 360 monitors radio frequency usage, which has obvious use-cases for intelligence and military, but also helps governments combat pirating and illegal fishing.
What’s right? What’s next?
- Critics raise questions: Is there value added? Is this the free market working as intended? As The Atlantic piece asks: “In a world where information is far from free, how can we balance the goal of efficient markets against the principle of fair play?”
- The CEO of RS Metrics says forget that; it’s coming to everyone: “First it is expensive and no one has it,” he told me. “But then it becomes cheaper, used by more people. Eventually, everyone will have real-time satellite access on their phone.”
- It isn’t cheap: most operators charge in $USD, per square km. Planet Labs lists a $1.2 / kmsq with a minimum order of 500kmsq, though there is a free trial.
- But as Starlink continues to SpaceX keeps finding ways to make launch costs falls, the costs will drop.
- Meanwhile, the small edge given to the early players will evaporate…
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Tristan Rayner, Senior Editor