Opportunities Abound in Commercial GEOINT

Panelists at USGIF’s Tech Showcase West discussed applications of GEOINT in nontraditional industries from agriculture to insurance


In the last half-decade, the field of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) has matured beyond its national security upbringing and surged into the commercial marketplace offering unique competitive advantages. Now, GEOINT represents a new and underused way for companies of all kinds to provide game-changing insights for their clients.

Panelists discussed commercial GEOINT at USGIF’s Tech Showcase West in St. Louis, Mo.

As part of its Tech Showcase West events held last month in St. Louis, Mo., the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) hosted a panel discussion on commercial GEOINT at the T-REX technology incubator. The panel, moderated by Boundless CEO Andy Dearing, included representatives from private companies who shared their applications of GEOINT in nontraditional markets outside of the defense and intelligence realms.

The agriculture industry is an early and enthusiastic adopter of GEOINT. Dr. Martin Mendez-Costabel, geospatial big data engineering and strategy lead for Bayer Crop Sciences (formerly Monsanto), explained how GEOINT is yielding new capabilities for the company beyond seed production. Mendez-Costabel’s Location 360 team runs aerial and satellite imagery through its data processing platform to help farmers in 60 countries maintain soil health, improve farming procedures, and minimize crop damages.

Small satellite data provider Planet has a strong presence in agriculture as well. Co-founder and chief strategy officer Robbie Schingler called it the company’s “largest market,” accounting for “40 to 50 percent” of its revenue.                       

Dutch street-level imagery provider CycloMedia Technologies has found its current niche serving public works organizations. Senior Manager of Solution Engineering Jennifer Kuntz demonstrated CycloMedia’s panoramic views of major world cities, created with a patented data processing method that merges traditional imagery with LiDAR. Utility companies use these panoramas to read asset tags, monitor equipment along roadways, and identify places where overgrown vegetation might interfere with power lines. The use of LiDAR also enables a shading function based on elevation, which useful for assessing or predicting flood damage in specific neighborhoods.

Panel: Commercial GEOINT from Trajectory On Location on Vimeo.

All three companies are focused on diversification, looking for ways to expand and apply their technologies in untapped markets now that they’ve established footholds in the commercial space.

“There’s a lot that can be done with public safety and e-911 centers like operational awareness or helping locate a person who has dialed 911,” said CycloMedia’s Kuntz. “Public safety has been slow on the uptake.”

Planet anticipates significant growth in the insurance industry.

“In 2022, insurance will probably be our largest [market],” said Schingler. “It can save a lot of costs and open up new product opportunities in parametric modeling and payouts before disasters happen to mitigate loss of assets.”

Planet also hopes to do business with more small and mid-sized companies. The company’s current specialty lies in subscriptions to its global database of analysis-ready data, but its role in the commercial world may soon evolve as it realizes the goal of monitoring global change over time.

Since 2010, Planet has collected petabytes of imagery every day, compiling it in a repository representing several years of physical global change. Now, the company wants to index that change and make it searchable by category. Schingler compared the idea to Google’s creation of a search engine to query the internet. Planet’s tool would use open-source machine learning algorithms for object detection and land classification, identifying and marking features such as ships, planes, roads, buildings, trees, and more. Eventually, such a tool could feed into business intelligence throughout the commercial market.

“That’s the huge market opportunity for our industry today,” Schingler said. “Part of the national security mission is economic prosperity for the nation, and we have an opportunity to create a whole new market, to bring geospatial data information services to the business-to-business information feed economy.”

Mendez-Costabel noted Bayer also plans to incorporate machine learning and AI to develop “edge analytics,” bringing data processing and analysis capabilities to remote locations disconnected from the internet and the cloud—corn fields in rural Iowa, for example. This ability to stitch and tag data onsite reduces the time a farmer spends waiting for Bayer insights.

AI is exciting and often improves efficiency, but mindlessly integrating it into a company’s workflow is not a direct line to commercial success. According to Mendez-Costabel, the hard science and phenomenology element remains critical for companies to understand, explain, and correctly target their use of emerging technology.

“I always believe in domain knowledge,” Mendez-Costabel said. “We try to look for a good balance between technical skills and soft social skills. We want our most senior engineers to go to the farms, kick the dirt a little bit, and understand how [their work] is going to create value for the farmers.”

Schingler echoed the importance of hiring the right personnel for an expanding company.

“To build a good team you want people who are mature and understand how to communicate well. It’s an under-appreciated talent to understand the systems thinking and how to be a good collaborator,” he said. “You need to have a good physics model for how the world works, how data flows, and [trends] so you can build something for where the puck is going.”

Headline image courtesy of Bayer

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