Cosmic google for the planet?

The company Planet Labs announced the successful implementation of its main task, which was set at the foundation of the company. Mission 1, as they called it, was to launch a sufficient number of satellites to receive photographs of the entire surface of the Earth once a day. And now, when conditions are created on the side of space, information technologies come into play - a huge data stream will be available for analysis when solving a variety of tasks.

88 Dove / Flock 3p satellites before launch, photo by Planet Labs

A pack of crawler

How it all began: the founder and seven employees in the garage, photos Planet Labs

The company Planet Labs, registered at the end of December 2010, managed to achieve a lot in a fairly short time. Their main idea was to launch a large number of cubes for continuous monitoring of the earth's surface. Small satellites can be easily added by fellow travelers to other vehicles, the accident of one launch vehicle will lead to the loss of only a small part of the grouping and acceptable losses, and the mass production of small vehicles allows them to be constantly upgraded. Thus was born Dove satellite ("Dove"). By the name of the devices, their groupings (and series) were called Flock ("Flock").

Satellite Dove, photo Planet Labs

In a cubic 3U (10x10x30 cm) weighing 4-5 kg ​​they managed to place good optics and a control system - the spatial resolution of photos is 3-5 meters per pixel depending on the orbit. But the main thing is that Planet Labs bakes them like cakes, in series of several dozen devices. After four separate experimental satellites, the launches literally began to flow.

88 Flock satellites are separated from the dispenser, animation from the video of the Indian Space Agency

The intensity of launches from the ISS is explained by the fact that the satellites are slowed down by atmospheric residues at a relatively low orbit and live for 12-18 months, depending on solar activity. Satellites in polar orbit ~ 600 km will have to work for 4-5 years.

Things went so well with the company that in 2015 they absorbed BlackBridge, which created and launched RapidEye satellites, and in 2017 they bought Google Terra Bella with SkySat satellites that have a spatial resolution of less than a meter per pixel and a "chip" as an opportunity to shoot video.

Video of Mecca from space, pilgrims move around the Kaaba

But, going back to flocks of pigeons, why is the word “crawler” used in the title? The fact is that Planet Labs compare themselves with Google, their satellites constantly scan the Earth as Internet search robots.

Data ex machina

In Stanislav Lem’s book “The Invincible”, they search for a landing on the planet and a missing starship and launch photo reconnaissance satellites, mobilize the crew to analyze photographs and find it quickly by chance, without noticing the most important feature of the planet. Analyzing manually one and a half million 29-megapixel images with a total size of 6 terabytes per day is depressing and pointless. And here computers and artificial intelligence come to the rescue.

In a day photos of 3/5 of the earth’s surface come from satellites. Another part can be closed by clouds, but in a week you can get photos of 95% of the Earth. The company has already established a data processing system in which the resulting photos are attached to the coordinates, slightly cleared and transferred to the machine learning platform. Work on it is just beginning, but the potential is fascinating. The resolution of 3-5 meters per pixel is enough to count the ships and containers in the port, and from this it is already possible to draw conclusions about the economic activity in the area. Here, for example, shooting port Botany in Australia with an interval of one day.

Animation of photos Planet Labs

From the growth of areas of solar panels in China, it is possible to calculate not only the growth of electricity produced by them, but by combining with photographs of other power plants, to obtain high-quality estimates of the country's energy system.

Animation Planet Labs

Some things are more visible from space than from the surface. Here, for example, illegal mines invade the territory of a natural reserve in Peru. Warnings Planet Labs reached the addressee - the Government of Peru drew attention to this area.

Animation of photos Planet Labs

Natural and man-made disasters can also be analyzed from space. Here is the animation of the accident and restoration work at the Oroville Dam this spring.

Animation of photos Planet Labs

In the gallery of the company's website you can see other examples.

Again, the platform for processing information received by satellites is still being developed and is the next important goal of Planet Labs. Things are even more fun - there is no understanding of what the combination of artificial intelligence and constantly replenished photos of the whole Earth will give. So far, the company's website is accepting applications from research teams, whose task will be trying to find a use for this. What is the effect of this idea? In its development, mankind does not play computer strategy and cannot look at the technology tree in order to know in advance the bonuses from a specific study. But, on the other hand, it is even more interesting.


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