Will Marshall is the co-founder and CEO of Planet Labs Inc. seen with a model of the Dove satellite at their headquarters in downtown San Francisco, California Thursday September 8, 2016 where they manufacture the shoebox-sized satellites they are developing send into space collecting photos of the earth.
Michael Makor | Getty Images
Imagine a farmer with thousands of acres of land being able to pinpoint the start of a problem before it spreads to potentially hundreds of acres of crops – all from an image on a computer screen.
That’s the kind of real-time data that Planet Labs provides. The company, founded in 2010 by two former NASA scientists, launches shoebox-sized satellites that can map the Earth every day and send back real-time data on global changes. Most of the 200 satellites the company currently operates were launched on SpaceX rockets, and last year Planet signed an agreement with Elon Musk’s company to be its “go-to-launch” vendor through 2025.
Before Planet, most of the satellites orbiting the Earth were huge, with lead times for images of up to eight years, said company president Kevin Weil, speaking at a CNBC Technology Executive Council town hall last month. Planet founders Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler, who worked at NASA’s small spacecraft office when they came up with the idea for the company, thought there had to be a faster, more efficient way to take pictures of what’s happening on Earth . They believed that smaller satellites, using essentially off-the-shelf parts, could be launched and iterated much more quickly, much like software is updated.
To prove it, Weil said they strapped a solar cell to the back of an Android phone and shot it into space. “They found that it could operate in space, take pictures of Earth, and even use its radio to send those pictures back to a ground station on Earth,” Weil said. From this test, Marshall and Schingler set out to build shoebox-sized satellites, each weighing about 12 pounds.
Governments, NGOs and trading companies are now among Planet Labs’ customers, which also include nearly all of the largest agribusinesses. This latter group, Weil explains, is using the technology to help farmers through Planet’s imagery by monitoring global crop yields and alerting them to problems they can’t easily see from the ground.
provide ground truth
Before Planet, Weil said farmers would need to walk around a field to determine how crops are doing, which ones are growing faster (or slower) than others, and how harvest schedules may need to be altered. A farmer with thousands of acres of fields cannot walk every day, so problems were often overlooked until they became obvious and costly.
Now a fleet of Planet satellites orbiting 500 kilometers above the Earth can monitor every area, every day. When these images are combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, Weil says Planet can provide farmers with real-time data that helps solve growing problems — sometimes even before they arise. “The data is grounded and allows farmers and farming businesses to monitor much more closely,” he said.
The company sends about 30 to 40 new satellites into orbit every year. Each new one, Weil said, is improved and upgraded based on more sophisticated technology and input from customers’ needs and wants. For example, a recent iteration improved the ability of Planet’s maritime customers to obtain better resolution images of water near ports.
Customers pay for Planet’s images based on the size of the area they want to monitor. “People think we’re a satellite company, but we’re actually a data company. It is a SaaS with recurring revenue [software as a service] business,” Weil said. Customers sign up for annual or multi-year contracts because they’re paying to see changes over time.
Help in Ukraine
In Ukraine, Planet’s real-time satellite imagery is helping the government, NGOs and other allies deal with the unfolding food crisis. Weil said the company’s data shows what crops are being grown, how they’re growing and what the expected yield is. It was also able to document evidence of the Russian army stealing wheat and destroying grain elevators. “We are able to document war crimes, but we also provide real-time data on the food crisis,” he said. “The sooner the wheat deficit is known, the better other countries can act.”
Looking ahead, Weil said he’s particularly excited about the company’s collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build what it calls a hyperspectral satellite. Instead of being able to see the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans can see, these new satellites will be able to go far into the infrared part of the spectrum and beyond, measuring methane and carbon dioxide. For example, Weil said it can help detect gas leaks in pipelines long before they’re noticed elsewhere.
“We don’t measure methane and carbon dioxide emissions well, let alone continuously,” he said. “But these satellites will make that possible and help us measure these emissions. And you cannot manage what you cannot measure.”