Google subsidiary Skybox Imaging, under its new name Terra Bella, is planning to make it easier for companies and businesses to exploit data gathered from space.

Terra Bella: beyond geospatial imagery to precise numerical data

When Skybox Imaging launched in 2009, its goal was to become a geospatial imaging company which sent into orbit small satellites able to provide high-precision images. Five years later Google – clearly impressed with the progress the startup had made – acquired it with a view to improving the Google Maps service. Around the same time, Skybox sent its first satellite into orbit and today the firm claims to have taken close to 100,000 high definition images of our planet. However it now has a new name and a somewhat different focus.
There is an incredible opportunity for geospatial information to transform our ability to meet the economic, societal, and humanitarian challenges of the 21st century, but satellite imagery represents only one part of the puzzle”, declare Skybox’s three founders, Dan Berkenstock, John Fenwick and Ching-Yu Hu, on the company blog. They are now looking to add machine learning-aided processing to their satellite imaging, plus the necessary expertise to convert high-definition imagery into data ‟to help people and organizations make more informed decisions,” says the blog. In line with this new vision, the firm has revamped its image and taken on a new name: Terra Bella.

A gold mine for businesses?

There is nothing very surprising about Terra Bella’s – and behind it, Google’s – interest in data extracted from satellite imaging. This data could well prove to be a gold mine for businesses in all sectors. Construction, port traffic, agricultural yields, deforestation and natural disasters – these phenomena all have a direct impact on the activities of so many companies and organisations all over the world. By applying analysis and comparison tools, experts will soon be able to draw out precise numerical data from satellite images. In fact the year 2015 saw the web giants and venture capital firms making huge investments in startups working in the aerospace field.

Scanning Planet Earth in real time

The challenge is to update the data as frequently as possible in order to be able to picture and quantify in something close to real time the changes taking place on our planet. At the Dreamforce 2015 software conference in San Francisco in September, locally-based Earth imaging company Planet Labs reiterated its goal of deploying a sufficient number of satellites in order to provide a sort of scanner capable of analysing in real time everything taking place on Earth. More recently, location intelligence and visualisation engine specialist CartoDB, which transforms geospatial data into easy-to-interpret maps, announced that it was launching a new tool to enable identification and visualisation of fundamental trends by processing huge amounts of data. As startups like these hone their ability to quantify the world from space, major players in various sectors will no doubt be keeping a close eye on what they are up to.

By Guillaume Renouard