Winning the Remote Sensing Game

Panel discusses what it will take to conquer commercial remote sensing


To geospatial enthusiasts, space nerds, and opportunistic investors, commercial satellites are sexy. But are they sustainable?

That was the question volleyed on stage Tuesday during “The Future of Commercial Remote Sensing,” a GEOINT 2018 panel focusing on the business of commercial remote sensing. Led by moderator and USGIF Board member Jeff Tarr, former CEO of DigitalGlobe, the hour-long discussion circulated among six distinguished panelists, each representing a unique corner of the commercial remote sensing marketplace: John Murtagh, head of strategy at Airbus Defence and Space; Dr. Walter Scott, founder of DigitalGlobe and chief technology officer at Maxar Technologies; Robbie Schingler, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Planet; Jane Poynter, CEO of WorldView; David Potere, co-founder and CEO of TellusLabs; and Julie Baker, co-founder and vice president of operations at Ursa.

The panel commenced with a splash of cold water on the industry’s face as each of the panelists on stage was asked to justify his or her company’s existence.

“There are more than 30 companies that are operating Earth-observation satellites or have announced their intentions to do so. And there are more than 100 companies that are planning to help customers make sense of the data,” observed Tarr, who predicted the future demise of many current start-ups. “Given the very large number of players in this space, why do you believe you will be among the winners?”

The consensus among panelists was that success is contingent on collaboration.

“For people to be successful, you need to team together and be part of the greater community,” Baker said.

The reason teamwork is so essential, panelists agreed, is that commercial remote sensing derives its value not from pixels, but from insights. And the best, most reliable insights are the product of collective rather than individual wisdom.

“To answer really tough questions … no one sensor is going to [be enough],” Potere said. “So finding ways to play well together so we can bring the context to the table that we need to solve problems without ruinous engineering burden on our front is, I think, going to be a really important factor.”

Another really important factor will be artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, which will be essential as the industry further pivots from building platforms that collect data to developing solutions that exploit it.

“What [machine learning] allows us to do is deal with a volume of data that is beyond daunting for any individual human,” Scott said. “In one day’s collection for the DigitalGlobe constellation it would probably take a human something like 85 years to go chew through all that data. So it’s just not practical.”

In a future where AI is baked into virtually everyone’s business model, what will differentiate one company from the next will be the quality of its algorithms, panelists predicted.

“You need to be able to trust the result of the algorithm, and that involves extensive training of the algorithms,” Scott continued. “That’s one of the reasons why we’ve supported a number of efforts to create large-scale training sets, so that they improve the quality of the algorithms over time.”

Until algorithms reach peak maturity, the companies poised to dominate are those that can best exploit human resources alongside technology.

“What helped us build [TellusLabs] a couple years ago was high-quality feature engineering. And by that I mean taking the raw data feeds from [commercial satellites] and making them physically meaningful,” Potere said. “That takes domain experience. We call it human-led machine learning. That means we’re hiring meteorologists and agronomists—people that really know the domain that we’re focused in—and we’re not letting deep-learning systems reinvent 50 years of remote sensing science.”

Clearly, commercial remote sensing companies face many challenges. Those at their helms, however, remain bullish about the opportunity.

“Not [everyone] will make it,” Tarr said. “But those who do will play an important role in making our world a better, more transparent, and safer place.”

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