Between Your Aircraft and Outer Space; The Next Imaging Frontier?

In the world of airborne lidar and remote sensing, there is a lot happening these days. The most prolific topics over the past 5 years have been with respect to the explosion of UAV and UAS technology. Most recently, we have seen much discussion on new lidar sensors employing Geiger Mode and Single Photon technologies pushing the limits of the traditional scanning beam and single point detectors’ capabilities. Airborne lidar systems developed by the Harris Corporation’s Geospatial Solutions Group, Boeing’s SpectroLab Inc., SigmaSpace Corp. have been deployed and shown to deliver outstanding point densities and comparable accuracy to legacy systems, even at altitudes beyond the reach of today’s most advanced commercially available lidar scanners. Companies like Princeton Lightwave Inc., Princeton NJ, are offering the building block sensors and even complete Geiger Mode cameras as commercially available OEM components for system integrators to incorporate into complete systems.


The market for conventional, commercial geospatial data has been well defined in the past decades from satellite – based imagery (such as Digital Globe, GeoEye, SPOT Image, BlackBridge/RapidEye, etc.) with 250 commercial satellites in space[i] of which approximately 17% are deployed for commercial remote sensing purposes[ii].  Lidar based digital elevation models (DEM) and digital terrain models (DTM), hyperspectral imagery information and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) collection are also feeding a robust and growing market demand for value-added content for post processed image data products, resulting in increased competition for providing these services. A clear market indicator is the airborne survey company merger and acquisition activity in recent years, and rapid reduction in prices for collection and data processing.


A latest trend appears to be the deployment of low earth orbit compact satellites for rapid response imagery collection. The reusable Cygnus vehicle, operated by Orbital Sciences of Dulles VA, launched on 9 January this year included a fleet of 28 small satellites (dubbed CubeSats)[iii] being deployed. The CubeSat Project is an international collaboration of over 40 universities, high schools, and private firms developing picosatellites containing scientific, private, and government payloads[iv]Planet Labs of San Francisco uses these CubeSats, intended to work as a coordinated “flock” gathering rapid response imagery for rapid response data, disaster relief and crop monitoring Google acquired SkyBox Imaging Inc. in 2014 providing direct competition to Planet Labs with the same use of CubeSats.  Urthecast, a Vancouver Canada based company, have four dedicated cameras mounted on the International Space Station, orbiting at 400km, and provide commercially available and on-demand full color ultra HD video and pushbroom imagery[v].


Unfortunately low earth orbit (LEO) space is becoming increasingly crowded with companies like OneWeb (backed by Virgin Group & Qualcomm) planning on launching 650 satellites and SpaceX (backed by Google) putting up to 4000 satellites just for communications purposes[vi]. We could even consider that satellite technology is become the latest technology reaching a mature state in the product life cycle concepts, driven by the increasing availability of commercial space launch services.

How High Do We Need to Go?

Up to now, we have been discussing data collection from altitudes of ground level to about 20,000 feet agl in the case of airborne imagery and point scanned lidar (however Harris quotes lidar data 2 points per square meter at 45,000 ft agl using Geiger Mode lidar[vii]), and satellite data (typically visible, SAR and hyperspectral imagery) at altitudes of 100-1200 miles for LEO satellites, 1200-22,000 miles mid-earth orbit, and >22,000 miles for high earth and geo-synchronous orbits[viii].   There is an entirely new realm of opportunity opening up in the stratosphere, a range of about 30,000-200,000 feet altitudes. Two competing projects are already in play between internet industry giants Google and Facebook to deploy high altitude craft for internet access and communications improvement, without the need for satellites.

Soaring with Loons and Eagles

Google’s Project Loon is a research and development project being developed by Google X with the mission of providing Internet access to rural and remote areas. The project uses high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 32 km (20 mi) to create an aerial wireless network with up to 3G-like speeds[ix]. They have already launched over 30 test balloons in New Zealand which are fully solar powered containing internet transceivers[x].

Similarly, the Facebook Aquila (Spanish for eagle) project is an autonomous solar powered drone flying at 60,000 feet. Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote “I’m excited to announce we’ve completed construction of our first full scale aircraft, Aquila, as part of our effort. Aquila is a solar powered unmanned plane that beams down Internet connectivity from the sky. It has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, but weighs less than a car and can stay in the air for months at a time. We’ve also made a breakthrough in laser communications technology. We’ve successfully tested a new laser that can transmit data at 10 gigabits per second. That’s ten times faster than any previous system, and it can accurately connect with a point the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away.”[xi] Now those are some very impressive numbers which fit very well into the remote sensing world, especially with slow moving aircraft.

This is the beginning of a completely new world for the remote sensing community. Combine these new stratospheric craft, with solar power and the new Geiger Mode lidar and other compact imaging technologies and there is an opportunity for a disruptive business model. For any of you who have read the book “Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant”[xii], you will see how these principals apply to the remote sensing world of today. The “Red Oceans” of today trap organizations anchored in existing market space even as they attempt to create new market space. The new “Blue Oceans”, as I have described in Loons and Eagles above, could well denote all the industries not in existence today – the unknown market space, untainted by competition. In blue oceans, demand is created rather than fought over.


Bio- Brent Gelhar is a technology commercialization consultant based in Toronto, Canada. He has been involved in development and market rollout of static 3D scanners, mobile mapping systems and a wide variety airborne lidar systems while working at Optech Inc. Learn more at his website and his LinkedIn profile.


[i]               Union Of Concerned Scientists Satellite Database


[ii]               Satellite Industry Association 2013 estimates


[iii]              The New Scientist


[iv]              CubeSat Project


[vi]              Analysis Mason


[vii]             Harris Geospatial specifications


[viii]             NASA Earth Observatory


[ix]              Google Project Loon


[x]               ARS Technica


[xi]              ARS Technica


[xii]             Boston: Harvard Business School Press. ISBN 978-1591396192.



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