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Speed, agility, quick innovation will form long-term model for EO industry: Brian O’Toole

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that there are activities and emerging events happening all over the world that can have an impact on our businesses and day-to-day life. Having the ability to quickly detect, understand, and respond to these changes will transform how we do business, delivering unprecedented insights on changes that matter most. Now that we can affordably deploy constellations of small satellites, we have the ability to monitor global changes and activities in near real-time. When combined with advanced Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning algorithms, we can deliver timely and relevant insights that provide our customers with a first-to-know advantage, feels Brian O’Toole, CEO, BlackSky.

By GW Prime

Imagine that you’re the first to know that a commodity will be in short supply, or that a delivery will be delayed. Having near real-time access to this kind of information can help businesses quickly pivot to a different supplier or make other changes that minimize business impact, says Brian O’Toole, CEO, BlackSky. “This will be transformational to a wide range of industries from transportation, security, insurance and defense, to environmental, natural resources, humanitarian and disaster response, and financial services.”

BlackSky has recently been in the news for its tie-up with the US Air Force contract through AFWERX and the Air Force Research Lab to monitor the efficacy of COVID-19 mitigation efforts worldwide. Near real-time global monitoring capabilities will track the spread of COVID-19 to ensure the protection of deployed personnel, and secure critical nodes of the supply chain. Additionally, the BlackSky Spectra AI platform utilizes Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning techniques and leverages state-of-the-art image exploitation techniques to automatically analyze anomalies and monitor the application of social distancing. These measurements will then be correlated against the reported infection numbers from local governments and integrated into the latest epidemiology models to predict the risk to deployed US Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

We caught up with a free-wheeling interview with O’Toole.

What do you think is the impact of COVID-19 on the Space and Earth Observation industry — short and long term term?

There have been minimal interruptions to satellite launch and development schedules. From a long-term perspective, COVID-19 has amplified the need to improve access to commercially available Earth Observation and geospatial data services. There is a growing need for on-demand access to platforms, tools, and geospatial content – anytime or anywhere.  

As a result, there will be a much bigger focus on the end user experience and streamlined integration of data services into the workflows of the customer. This will ultimately create more demand and drive innovation through an array of new applications. New Space companies are well suited to address this paradigm shift as small satellite constellations provide more sensors. Improved global monitoring that provides insights or analytics as a service drives more demand for commercial data and monitoring services and provides improved situational awareness.

One of the most significant impacts in our industry that has come from the pandemic is the need for increased Earth observation, especially for our defense and intelligence customers. To help our customers gain COVID-19-related insights, we created a coronavirus dashboard that uses AI to analyze the news and other sources to task satellites to take images of points of interest.

There will be a much bigger focus on the end user experience and streamlined integration of data services into the workflows of the customer. This will ultimately create more demand and drive innovation through an array of new applications

Three images were collected in rapid succession over Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on August 10, 2020, at 11:31 a.m. local time. By analyzing these images, BlackSky is able to extract critical economic and financial indicators to offer a near-real-time view of commercial activity in Port Elizabeth. In particular, with the assistance of Spectra AI, BlackSky can count the number of container stacks in the container yard, identify the container and bulk carrier ships currently berthed, count the number of vehicles awaiting export in the car terminal, track ground vehicle movements, and even determine which cargo holds are actively being loaded

Since a majority of New Space companies are VC funded, how do the market prospects look post COVID—19?

The past 12 months have been significant for New Space companies. We are seeing a transition from just a few years ago, from what was aspirational, to what is now reality. Whether it’s new launch capabilities or emerging weather, imaging, SAR, or ELINT constellations, the technical risks are now mostly behind a number of these companies and now it’s a matter of further deployment and scaling up,

The speed, agility, and rapid innovation cycles are proving to be a viability and long-term model for the industry that will attract capital from larger growth-oriented investors. There are a number of New Space companies that closed significant funding rounds in the past six months and are executing on their next phase of growth. The industry is poised for an exciting future as customers adopt the new services offered by New Space companies and investors looking to capitalize on the opportunities of a high growth industry.

At present, we’re at the tipping point where geospatial intelligence is becoming a must-have resource — in many ways mirroring the evolution of GPS

Business and government agencies are hungry for information that geospatial intelligence makes possible. In fact, a recent report from Northern Sky Research found that the market for Earth observation data and analysis is predicted to reach $8.1 billion by 2029, a significant uptick from its $3 billion value in 2019.

At present, we’re at the tipping point where geospatial intelligence is becoming a must-have resource – in many ways mirroring the evolution of GPS. Companies are discovering its value and it is becoming more accessible and affordable. The experience is also becoming more tailored. Our business is driven by helping our customers learn about and track changes that matter most to them, and we’ve been successful in delivering on that promise. As demand is expected to increase, companies like BlackSky will have solid business prospects.

A single ship (in yellow) approaches Grytviken in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands at 5:25 p.m. local time on August 10, 2020, as captured by BlackSky-8. An image at this time of the day is achievable due to the specific inclined orbit of the BlackSky satellites. All ships entering Grytviken are required to pass a thorough COVID-19 screening process before entry is permitted

What has been the impact of COVID on BlackSky’s business and future growth prospects?

Fortunately, COVID-19 has not negatively impacted BlackSky and we’ve continued operations as planned. We have been able to keep our launch, satellite production and development plans on track. We established a goal of launching 16 satellites midway through 2021, and we are on track to meet that goal. The fifth and sixth satellites we added to our growing constellation this summer began delivering imagery just 58 hours after launch.

We are having an incredible year as we are adding more and more imagery customers and winning significant new programs in AI, Machine Learning and tactical ISR. One such program is the work we are doing for the US Army Tactical GEOINT (TacGEO) prototype program to support the Department of Defense’s needs for responsive, Space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for tactical applications. Another example is an award of a US Air Force contract through AFWERX and the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) to monitor the efficacy of COVID-19 mitigation efforts worldwide through its Spectra AI platform.

The Gen-3 satellites will be capable of producing images with 50-cm resolution and of hosting multiple sensors including short-wave infrared (SWIR). The improved resolution and enhanced spectral diversity of these satellites will extend BlackSky’s ability to provide real-time insights in a broad set of conditions, including nighttime, low light, and challenging weather.

We introduced new ways for intelligence analysts to access secure information during the pandemic. In April, we launched our Spectra On-Demand Secure Bundle as a way to provide a secure solution for analysts to carry on with critical activities, review multi-source data feeds, obtain timely access to satellite imagery and gain resources for event analysis.

Could you elaborate on some of the latest innovations from BlackSky?

As mentioned previously, in September we announced the next phase of expansion of our high-revisit commercial satellite constellation with our next generation, Gen-3, satellite architecture. These satellites are capable of producing images with 50-cm resolution and of hosting multiple sensors including short-wave infrared (SWIR). The improved resolution and enhanced spectral diversity of the Gen-3 satellites will extend our ability to provide real-time insights in a broad set of conditions, including night-time, low-light, and challenging weather.

Beyond the satellites, the most exciting innovations are coming from our data science and Machine Learning team. The ability to transform EO, radar, and signals observation into actionable intelligence requires an advanced platform that exploits and fuses information and then delivers that intelligence into the hands of decision makers at unprecedented speeds. We have partnered with some of the industry’s leading R&D organizations to develop a suite of new algorithms leveraging multi-source AI and ML. Our goal is provide customers with a first-to-know advantage by monitoring globally in every spectrum.

We also conducted the preliminary design review of our Gen-3 satellite for the U.S. Army Tactical GEOINT (TacGEO) prototype program as part of a multi-year contract with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU). The TacGEO program is designed to support the Department of Defense’s needs for responsive, Space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for tactical applications.

Centered on the spectacular Masjid al-Haram, this image taken on Aug. 22, 2020, shows the continued impact of COVID-19 on our lives and the new patterns of life that have emerged. At the heart of the Masjid al-Haram is the Kaa'ba. Typically, the outdoor space surrounding the Kaa'ba is packed with pilgrims. However, this image instead shows the well-spaced pattern of prayer rugs and an otherwise empty floor, examples of the social distancing measures necessary to keep pilgrims to the Kaa'ba safe

Do you see the need for a change in your business strategy in the “new normal” world?

Not at all. In fact the “new normal” world has been a validation of our business strategy, where speed to insights and a more streamlined user experience is paramount. Our strategy is provide our customers with a first-to-know advantage. By combining a high-revisit satellite constellation with a multi-source analytics platform, we are now delivering unique insights at incredible speeds. Customers are looking to transition from buying pixels to subscribing to information and data services. We’ve been working to intersect this market shift through the development of our platform and overall architecture. The disruptive economics of small satellites operating as a global monitoring constellation are a critical enabler to providing customers with geospatial intelligence and unique insights that were not available or affordable before now.

We’ve also had contingencies baked into our business strategy from the start, such as building in redundancies in our supply chains and working with multiple launch providers to ensure our goals are met.

One of the other components of our model has been to leverage LeoStella as our manufacturing partner to build out our constellation. It was critical for us to work with a manufacturer that could help us build our satellites rapidly and cost effectively. LeoStella is able to produce about two satellites a month in its facility – a notable pace compared to how slowly traditional satellites have been produced in the past. They’re helping us make satellites less expensive and at scale, which helps us achieve our goal of providing disruptive speed and economics to the market.

How do you view the policy environment going forward?

We’re already seeing significant policy changes that are making it easier to deliver the level of insights that our customers find valuable and that will pave the way for future innovation. Earlier this year, the US Dept. of Commerce and NOAA announced new streamlined rules for commercial remote sensing satellites. The new rules remove restrictions on non-Earth, radar, night-time, and short-wave infrared imaging that have previously hindered our capabilities. As governments and organizations become more familiar with what’s possible with geospatial intelligence and analysis, it’s likely that policies and practices will be shaped accordingly.

We’re already seeing significant policy changes that are making it easier to deliver the level of insights that our customers find valuable and that will pave the way for future innovation.

Small satellites, innovative miniature sensors and swarms, and rideshare opportunities have changed the face of the EO industry by democratizing it. As we step into Industry 4.0, do you think there is a need for the industry to reorient its strategies or can it continue its current momentum?

 The industry can continue its current momentum. We’re in an era marked by an acceleration of innovation in Space. And as more companies realize the power of Space, we believe more will want to leverage it and by doing so, leveraging spatial intelligence will become more or less the norm. Many of these advancements are still so new, we haven’t uncovered all of the potential applications yet. As we begin to see more customers looking to gain insights from Space, we’re sure to see applications shift and adapt in different ways. Advancements in other areas of tech will also be beneficial to the industry, further boosting momentum.

Over time, we expect that geospatial intelligence will become more of a common business tool that commercial entities will use to better understand their market

Over time, we expect that geospatial intelligence will become more of a common business tool that commercial entities will use to better understand their market. And, as tech innovation advances at the same time, we expect our tools to become more powerful and accessible. Already we’re seeing universities looking to incorporate more information about satellites and applications for Space insights into their curriculum – another signifier that this will become more deeply embedded in our world in the future.