Google is spending half a billion dollars on a start-up that makes and launches satellites, in order to improve the accuracy of its mapping service and eventually expand internet access around the world.
The acquisition of Skybox will give Google access to a huge new trove of data to add to its extensive mass of personal information. The deal is the latest of many recent moves by Silicon Valley to look towards the heavens for expansion.
Skybox is one of several start-ups, including San Francisco’s Planet Labs, taking advantage of falling costs in building and launching satellites to bring new innovations to remote-earth imaging and monitoring. Traditional rivals’ satellites, such as Digital Globe, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but Skybox’s cost less than $9m each, albeit having a shorter lifespan.
Google said that for now Skybox’s technology would help it improve its maps. “We also hope that Skybox’s team and technology will be able to help improve internet access and disaster relief,” Google said.
The push on internet access could help Google and Facebook expand the number of potential consumers. Facebook is growing faster in many emerging markets than it is in the near-saturated US and Europe, but many people in sprawling countries such as Indonesia and India lack reliable connections.
Five-year-old Skybox, which has 130 staff, launched its first satellite in November after raising $91m in venture-capital funding. SkySat-1 can capture photos and videos of any location on earth every three or four days.
Before the acquisition, Skybox had said it planned to launch a further 23 satellites within the next five years, including 13 by the end of 2016 – each generating a terabyte of data every day.
While its satellites can take images from space in great detail, Skybox’s co-founder and chief product officer Dan Berkenstock told the FT in an interview in April that the photos are like a “raw natural resource” that must be converted into data to be really useful.
Potential applications of its technology include estimating volumes of oil in containers by monitoring operations at facilities, monitoring sites of disasters or humanitarian crises, or tracking economic activity based on the number of planes flying in and out of selected airports.
Skybox、旧金山的Planet Labs等几家初创企业正利用建造及发射卫星成本不断下滑的机会，在远程地球成像和监测方面作出创新。Digital Globe等传统竞争对手的卫星通常要耗资数亿美元，但Skybox的成本却不到900万美元，不过寿命较短。