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Crowded Skies Challenge Earth Imaging Upstarts

Booming demand for up-to-date, high-definition pictures of the earth’s surface has set off an unusual competitive battle among upstarts racing to deploy traditional satellites, constellations of small satellites, drones and manned aircraft to produce the best aerial images at the lowest cost.

Tech giants including Google and Facebook are circling the sector for acquisitions that could both bolster existing products and lay groundwork for new ones. Google has been in talks to acquire Skybox Imaging, as The Information earlier reported

Yet there’s tremendous uncertainty as to how quickly the earth imaging business will develop and how changes in government policy might affect the nascent industry. There’s also a lot of technology risk in novel aerial systems that are expensive to deploy. And if all the new approaches actually work as promised, the sector could quickly be commoditized, with the big profits flowing not to companies that sell the pictures, but those that have figured out creative ways to use them.

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TerrAvion founder Robert Morris is himself a former U.S. Army drone pilot, but he says the Cessna 172 proved to be cheaper than using drone technology. “It’s not the drones, it’s the dudes in trucks” that makes drone operations expensive, he says.