I am old enough to remember the venerable 3.5-inch floppy disks, holding a whopping 1.44MB of data. We felt we were holding the future in our hands when we slid one of those things into the old disk drive.
I’m also old enough to remember when the Rogers Centre in Toronto was called the SkyDome. Sitting there, watching the retractable roof in motion, we felt we were cutting edge.
Now imagine taking those floppy disks and stacking them neatly until the stadium was stuffed with disks, from the playing field to the top of that famous roof – about 56.6 billion disks. I know because I did the math. All those disks would equal 75 petabytes of data. The world now collects a SkyDome-worth (sorry Rogers Centre) of earth observation satellite data every two months.
In comparison, all of the academic research ever published in the history of the United States, amounts to two petabytes.
It isn’t just the amount of data being collected; it’s the quality of the images too. It isn’t unusual now to see satellite images with a 15cm resolution, which means if you looked at 3 red trucks parked side-by-side, you could tell which was a Ford or Dodge or Chevy. Those scenes in your favourite spy film where the folks at situation command can pull up a satellite image and zoom in to clearly identify a person’s face or the equipment in the back of a pick-up truck, isn’t the stuff of fiction anymore. It’s real – and an increasing amount of it is for sale.
According to a 2019 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), over 500 space-based start-ups were created between 2014 and 2019, mostly in the U.S. but also in Europe, Japan, India and China. This is the company Tom, I and our team keep these days in the global start-up scene. These companies are building capacity in a number of areas: new launch capabilities, innovative Internet of Things services via small satellites, or new forms of data analytics. The start-ups are doing what start-ups have done in other industries, spurred the larger, established companies to look to adapt business practises to this emerging environment.
Investment, both public and private, naturally follows.
Public investment in space activities is at $75 billion US and rising, and will soon surpass the Apollo era – the first golden age of space exploration. The difference this time is public investment is not limited to a few; over 80 countries have satellites orbiting the earth and space-based funding is now part of international development assistance projects led by the U.S., Canada, France, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom.
Private investment is harder to track. The OECD estimates start-up equity investments at $3.25 billion in 2018.
The world is looking up, way up. What will we see?
We’ve all had the experience of pulling up Google Earth to check out our house or another spot on the earth, and while that gives us a ‘cool’ moment, that isn’t where the real value lies. It is in the accumulation of all this data that will allow us to track, map and analyze changes happening over time, anywhere on earth.
To know with great certainty how the changing seasons, or other weather patterns impact a place; to track changes caused by climate; to determine how life in a city flows and where and why congestion happens; and, just as those spy films have long predicted, to track the movements and activities of threats, both internal and external, to the world’s safety.
Look up into the sky and think about that.