Outer space has long been a setting for innovation. However, as technology is now fully integrated into our everyday lives, it’s possible that space has been, in some ways, ignored. Perhaps it is surprising to learn that most of the satellite imagery that we people have access to is actually quite outdated. The reason is that satellites are fairly old inventions; they’re large, slow, and very expensive. For Will Marshall, one of the founders of Planet Labs, not having up-to-date imagery of our planet is a colossal misstep. As he presented at TED2014, Marshall and Planet Labs have plans to rectify that, and for quite crucial reasons.
Planet Labs launched with the goal of taking and providing images of the entire planet, every single day. As Marshall put it, “You can’t fix what you can’t see,” so he and his team tasked themselves with finding a way to build smaller, faster satellites that are more capable and efficient. And how small are Planet Labs’ satellites? Try 10 x 10 x 30 centimeters, weighing in at a miniscule 4 kilograms. And more importantly, Planet Labs’ satellites (called “Doves”, in accordance with the company’s humanitarian efforts) take pictures that have ten times the resolution of the photos we are used to seeing, which are provided by large, standard satellites.
Despite it’s out-of-this-world ambitions, his project began as a startup, out of a garage in Cupertino, CA, utilizing the so-called Silicon Valley model. Marshall said that the team believed in the mantra of “release early, release often”, and in April 2013, they release their first two demo satellites which returned the company’s first imagery. Soon, Planet Labs’ fleet of 28 Doves rode aboard the Antares rocket en route to the International Space Station, and a month later in February 2014, the 28 satellites were deployed from the ISS. Marshall believes that taking high-res satellite photos of every corner of the earth, every day, can have immense impacts. The hope is to more quickly identify the planet’s changes, whether it being urban growth, deforestation, floods, fires and earthquakes; essentially, Planet Labs hopes to show how the entire world is changing, day-by-day, and wants to democratize the massive data they plan on gathering, making it accessible and meaningful to all.
Marshall’s story is one of re-imagining how to solve a problem. In this case, Planet Labs utilized a model that past companies have used to create, say, mobile apps for smartphones, and brought it to an area that had somewhat surprisingly fallen by the wayside: outer space.