Sunday, March 23, 2014

William Marshall: Democratizing Space

Satellites are big and expensive.  That’s why there aren’t very many of them.  As a result, our planet images are several years old.

William Marshall and Planet Labs intends to change all that by launching a lot of small satellites instead of a few big ones.

The Dove satellite measures 10x10x30 cm. and weighs just 4 kgs, but it packs a huge pixel punch. It has resolution to 3-5 metres but is deliberately engineered to not identify people.

Over 100 satellites will be launched this year, and the array will take a picture of every place on earth every day. Such near-realtime data will be useful in many circumstances: capturing urban development, monitoring farmland, or assessing natural disasters.  Planet Labs already has many contracts for these services.
These satellites are radically smaller and cheaper. A New York Times article writes:
"These satellites are powered by batteries normally found in a laptop, with semiconductors similar to those in a smartphone. "Nothing here was prequalified to be in space," Mr. Marshall said. "We bought most of our parts online.""
Low cost enables so much.  It allows rapid prototyping and agile development, with Planet Labs is churning out multiple generations of their product while big-satellite makes would struggle to get through one. The short development time means that they can take advantage of the latest technology in every version. They can take a failed launch (or a software bug) in stride.

Low cost means Planet Labs can build so many satellites, and since launch costs depend on size and weight, they can actually afford to launch them. This approach of modularization delivers economy, flexibility and robustness. We’ve seen such modularity revolutionize the way computing is done, with the advent of distributed computing.  Vijay Kumar's TED talk showed the power of modularity with robots. It’s interesting to see modularity coming to aerospace.

These satellites keep getting cheaper. Again, from the New York Times:
Version nine, which is almost complete, cost about 35 percent less than the current version in space, and was made four times faster . . .

Planet Labs intends to offer universal access to the data. That idea really resonated with the audience, resulting in a .8 Standing O (i.e. about 80% of the audience was on their feet for the Standing Ovation).

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