'We scan the whole world, every day'
The FT's John Thornhill investigates how Planet uses a fleet of tiny satellites to image every inch of the globe, every 24 hours
Produced by Tom Hannen. Filmed by Charlie Bibby and Gregory Bobillot.
During the Cold war, the Americans built this listening station on Devil's Mountain, a pile of rubble on the outskirts of Berlin. And from here they scanned the airwaves, listening to their surrounding adversaries in the Warsaw Pact. Today, an American company called Planet, based just a few miles away in Berlin, is using satellite technology to scan the entire globe and to sell those images to anyone who wants to pay.
I'm Robbie Schingler. I'm co-founder and chief strategy officer of Planet. This is the San Francisco space programme designed-- build mass manufacture satellites and operating all the spacecraft. We operate them here in Berlin. And we operate them also in San Francisco. Today, we operate 190 spacecraft.
Every 24 hours, Planet uses these satellites to take a photograph of the earth. Think Google street view from space, but with each photo updated every day.
You tried to not have very many moving parts in space. So one-time deployable. This is the antenna flap. And one-time deployable that comes out for the actual solar panels here.
That's one big...
By piggybacking on others' rocket launches, Planet can make use of spare capacity on the spacecraft and then release multiple tiny satellites to look back down at the Earth.
So planet satellites are very small. But we can see relatively high resolution because we fly really low. So it's really close to the Earth. For the doves with the small satellites that image the whole earth every day, they're at about 3 metres per pixel. So if you take a look at a football pitch, for instance, it's about 30 pixels by 10 pixels wide. So it's enough to really see how things are changing over time but not really getting down to super high resolution to really understand who is doing what.
But the ability to look down at every point on the Earth can be used for many purposes, both good and bad. The charity, Human Rights Watch, argues that benefits significantly outweigh the drawbacks.
The positives are immense. For example, in agricultural plant development - urban planning - natural disaster risk assessment. And, of course, in my field, exposing atrocities. But there are risks as well. For example, when this imagery is more available, it can be used for more nefarious purposes, right? As the data is available in more hands, it can be used for good and for bad.
And the other issue is, of course, privacy. I mean, the proliferation of satellite imagery data does pose some risks regarding to privacy. But I do not think it should be overstated in any way. Satellite imagery resolution is not incredibly high. It cannot see you sunbathing nude in the garden. It can't really tell the make of a car. Because when you walk through the streets of Berlin, London, or other major cities, and even increasingly rural areas, you are being monitored almost constantly by the network of CCTV cameras and video surveillance.
And, by the way, the most widely proliferated use of sensing is just this, right? You are using a mobile phone that a lot of people also call a personal tracking beacon. And data knows more about you than you know about yourself.
Perhaps the real uses for this data have yet to be fully understood. It's all the ways of using these images that we haven't worked out yet that provide the most tantalising glimpse of what is to come. Clarissa Christensen, a space analyst, says that CubeSats are offering something new.
Suddenly, for the first time, you have a picture of every simultaneous economic activity on earth all at once. We've never had that before. Now those pictures aren't going to necessarily tell you everything that you want to know. But if you blend that information with other data sets, soon you will develop a way of analysing and predicting economic activity that's completely unique.
Think of the first time that you looked at your country from an airplane. The difference in view - the difference in perspective-- the difference in how you process and analyse it and experience it is profound. This idea of low-cost global images multiple times a day. They're not very good images, but they're everywhere. That's one of the big hooks.
Planet has made an extraordinary bet that we can use this information for the benefit of all society. They have created the supply. But who will drive the demand?