Commercial Earth Observation

I was just reading Peg Shippert’s post on environmental monitoring constellations at Imagery Speaks. In a succinct post two constellations are described: the inter-governmental Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) and commercial Rapideye constellation. See the post for more details.

The post reminded me of the differences between public providers of Earth Observation data and commercial providers ( I’d be interested to hear what Dr Shippert thinks of this too). Way back when, the USGS used to charge for Landsat data, and it wasn’t all that cheap. SPOTs pricing was higher, reflecting in part, the higher spatial resolution. Eventually the US agency reduced the price to $500 then released the archive data free. Possibly in response SPOT released more and more data at reduced prices and ESA and the EU made data available for scientists for free. ESA itself has only recently embraced wider or near-open access data in a way that the US adopted a decade or so ago. Hence today we have parallel structures where moderate and high resolution public data are available for free. Very high resolution data is largely the domain of (US) commercial data providers such as Digital Globe and GeoEye. In Europe Rapideye tried to compete but this year was sold to a Canadian company Iunctus following bancruptcy.

Pricing clearly separates the different data provision models. Imagery from the likes of Digital Globe and GeoEye are not cheap despite the business model being heavily subsidised by the US taxpayer. Indeed, a threatened reduction in government business led the Senate to rally behind the commercial satellite operators, despite the lean times. But that is not all that separates the commercial entities from their government counterparts.

When I want to hunt for high or moderate resolution imagery from Landsat, Envisat or EO-1, I go online and search Glovis (USGS), Reverb (NASA) or EOLI SA (ESAs Stand Alone catalogue). If I want to look for Rapideye data I can search their catalogue online (implemented only recently though). Digital Globe and GeoEye also have searchable catalogues. BUT, try finding a price…. RapidEye asks you to “contact a Sales Partner”. Digital Globe allows you to email an enquiry to Customer Service. When I asked about data in 2009 I received a quote of £2250 for a 152 km^2 region of Antarctica covered by a Quickbird Natural Colour Composite mosaic.  This was Antarctica for heavens sakes! Who pays that kind of money? Furthermore, the pricing is opaque and customer service is rather slow and inconvenient.

We’re often told how innovative and flexible business is compared with monolithic state entities. Often this is true but when in comes to the provision of satellite imagery to professional users my experience tells me I am in the best hands when I am in my own hands: I’d like to search the catalogue and order the data myself. Online automated orders such as those offered by ESA, USGS and NASA are by far and away superior to email discussions that including licensing ‘options’.

So, if you are planning to launch the next generation of commercial EO platforms here are my tips:

-be upfront and honest about your pricing and licensing (and inject some realism),

– offer a simple catalogue interface for customer searches: by all means offer access to customer service specialists too,

– support online ordering, even if it requires registration and confirmation/validation.

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