Saturday, June 14, 2014

Google buys a satellite company -- Skybox Imaging -- why and what next?

This acquisition is ostensibly a data play, not a connectivity play, but couldn't a constellation of low-earth orbit Skyboxes cover the globe? Teledesic 2?

A few days ago, we looked at Google's efforts to bring connectivity to developing nations and rural areas using satellites and high altitude platforms.

Now, Google has acquired Skybox Imaging for $500 million. Skybox uses very small satellites orbiting at an altitude of 600 kilometers, which means they move at over seven kilometers per second relative to the surface of the Earth. Their technology is sufficiently advanced to compensate for that speed and produce videos that clearly show the movement of vehicles -- check this video:

Skybox Imaging HD Video of Las Vegas on March 25, 2014 (1080p) from Skybox Imaging on Vimeo.

Off hand, this seems more like a data gathering move than part of a developing nation and rural connectivity strategy -- they can use these images to look at traffic (for self-driving cars?), count ships in a port or cars in parking lots, etc. For examples, check this video:

But, they plan to launch many of these low-earth orbit satellites -- couldn't they be used for global connectivity as well? Several companies were formed to do just that in the 1990s. Bill Gates, Paul Allen and a Saudi prince backed the best-known one, Teledesic, but the technology of the time was not up to the task and the company failed.

Shifting emphasis, you can see an earlier video of the Skybox entreprenurial team presenting their vision at the Stanford Busiiness School here.

While this effort is not directly tied to providing connectivity, it beefs up Google's space technology and skills. Google is becoming a player in the space game along with Internet entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and Richard Brnason's Virgin Galactic. There are rumors that Google is negotiating a stake in Virgin Galactic and one can't help thinking Musk and Bezos are watching all this with interest.

Update 6/14/2014

More cool Skybox Imaging videos

Update 2/25/2017

Google has sold Skybox Imaging to Planet Labs, an Earth imaging company. My speculation about possible satellite-based Internet service was off base.

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