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Are small companies poised to disrupt the satellite industry?

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We are so preoccupied these days with connecting everything imaginable, that it’s easy to miss another field of technology where the pace of change is beginning to transform an entire industry. Perhaps that’s because this particular technology is not in the next room or a block down the street, but instead can be found 250 miles above the Earth.

Until recently, commercial satellite technology has largely remained the same for decades, going back to the Sputnik launch by Russia in 1957. It cost multi-millions to build and place a satellite into orbit. This was a game only for the big players with deep pockets.

But with the advent of lighter, more compact advanced technology, a new group small-satellite companies are poised to change the game in a big way.

Earlier this month, Google raised eyebrows with the announcement that they would be purchasing Skybox Imaging, a micro-satellite startup headquartered in Mountain View, California for $500 million.

Skybox specializes in capturing high resolution video of Earth. That’s nothing new for Google; the search giant has been promoting its own images (Google Earth) for years. But there is speculation that the company is looking to strengthen its position as the number one site for global data and sees Skybox’s network of smaller satellites as the way to do it.

There are other smaller firms seeking to enter the micro-satellite space as well. These include UrtheCast, a Canadian company, and Planet Labs. A couple of European engineering firms have plans for smaller orbiting satellites as well, but these will not be available for at least another year at the earliest.

One of the more intriguing entrants in the field is Satellogic. Unlike many of its competitors, Satellogic actually has three satellites already in orbit (the third was launched a few weeks ago).

The company is building the first distributed satellite platform that will be connected via a mesh network to monitor the Earth in real time. The cost to get its three satellites into space has been absurdly low. The company has only raised $7 million to-date. This is largely because launch costs are scaled by the pound and Satellogic’s gear is very light.

“We’re putting a network of sensors around the Earth and we’re the only company to do this,” says founder Emiliano Kargieman. Satellogic builds its satellites in Buenos Aires and has an office in Silicon Valley.

Kargieman’s satellites generate high resolution images and video from space, as well as constant data streams that can be updated every two hours because of the radio cross-links between orbiting gear. He feels that this model will have tremendous appeal, particularly for agriculture, oil and gas, and environmental monitoring groups. Kargieman hopes to have ten orbiting satellites a year from now.

Satellogic’s model offers an interesting contrast between the “big bucks” approach taken by Google and other large firms, and a smaller, more nimble model that could soon blanket the earth in satellites purely on the lower cost alone.

Will Satellogic become the “Uber” of satellite data transmission and disrupt an industry that remained largely the same for half a century? It will be well worth watching the skies this year and next to see how it all plays out.

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