Venezuela by the Medium Res Theia camera. Image credit: Urthecast

Jan 9, 2015 UrtheCast - democratizing Earth observation

Sen—Earth observation has always been a vital strategic asset to military, governmental and commercial sectors alike. Recent years have seen a number of companies making use of increased computational power and reduced hardware costs aimed at the commercial sector. One such company is Canada-based UrtheCast.

Traditionally, Earth observation platforms have existed in the form of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, largely due to the constraints imposed by the optical systems onboard. It’s a lot easier to view the Earth (or other celestial body) from a few hundred kilometers above the surface, compared to from Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), for example. Additionally, due to orbital mechanics, a lower altitude satellite will be capable of covering a much larger portion of the Earth, due to the frequency of passes over the planet. Satellites in geostationary orbit tend to be … well, stationary, because they are falling around the Earth at the same rate as which the Earth turns.

Of course, satellites in LEO tend to be non-serviceable, especially without the aid of a shuttle. This means that long development periods and high costs tend to go hand in hand with such products.

If only there was some way to monitor the Earth from a permanently orbiting manned facility. That would surely reduce the cost, and increase the serviceability of the hardware, right?

Enter UrtheCast.

In November 2013, UrtheCast sent 2 cameras, named “Theia” and “Iris” up to the International Space Station on board a Russian Progress cargo ship. The ground resolutions for the two cameras are 5.5m and 1.1m per pixel for the medium resolution and high resolution cameras respectively. So they are more than capable of detecting the effects of natural disasters, maritime asset monitoring, environmental disasters, traffic jams, and a variety of humanitarian issues such as mass movements of people during a refugee crisis. So as you would expect, there are quite a lot of businesses who are interested in accessing such data. 

Both cameras are operational, and are mounted to the Russian Zvezda module. As of January 2015, the medium resolution camera (Theia) is available for commercial use by customers. The Ultra HD video (Iris) is in the process of being fully calibrated and commissioned. UrtheCast informed Sen that Iris will be commercially operational later this year.

Companies interested in accessing the service can take out a subscription, allowing them unique access to images or videos of places of interest, which can be accessed via the company’s tailor made software platform from the comfort of their own office, or home. Additionally, there is a free service for customers who are happy to use non-exclusive images, from a non-specific timeframe. 

Part of their subscription service includes a “tasking” option, which enables the user to access near real-time footage at 4k resolution, over the customer’s preferred timeframe. In addition, UrtheCast offers an “advanced tasking” solution, which includes a trending topic engine which suggests places of interest based on current events.

Anyone who has dealt with Earth observation imagery will know that the raw data captured from such systems requires some form of orthorectification in order to make heads or tails of the data. UrtheCast offers this and other image processing services to remove the headache from the map creation process.

The cameras, both built by Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in the UK, can cover a range of spectral bands, including NIR and RGB, meaning that not only artificial, man-made objects can be observed, but vegetation indices can be determined from orbit (good for environmental monitoring). These are pretty standard things that you would expect to find on larger Earth observation satellites (such as the SPOT satellites) but are now available at a fraction of the cost. 

Urthecast's business model is to generate revenue through a number of innovative streams, including sales of Earth observation data, in which a government may pay to monitor the growth of urban sprawl in an area.

Another revenue stream will be sales of videos of Earth, where a news channel may pay to obtain footage of an unfolding natural disaster.

The company can also offer commercial businesses an advertising platform whereby a brand pays to have their logo superimposed over a particular location on the video footage.

A further source of revenue can be generated from sales of Urthcast's Application platform, such as social video games which leverage Urthcast's footage.

So there you have it. Commercially available UltraHD streamed videoof planet Earth with a range of commercial options. Furthermore, UrtheCast are continuing to develop their technology. In November 2014 they were awarded a $65 million contract to enable the development of their second generation cameras, for installation on the NASA segment of the ISS. These new cameras will feature SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) capabilities, and will enable the company to image through rainclouds, which become invisible to SAR.

So it seems that UrtheCast means business, and they are definitely a 'NewSpace' company to keep an eye on. 

In the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “Keep looking up”. Or down, as the case may be for an Earth observation company.


Urthecast image of Dubai taken by the Medium Res Theia camera on the International Space Station. Image credit: Urthecast