High-altitude surveillance, once the domain of global superpowers, is now being turned into a business, with startups selling insights from cameras and other sensors installed on small and inexpensive cube satellites, The New York Times reported.
"Businesses will not be able to hide from competitors or regulators or watchdogs," Mark Johnson, chief executive and co-founder of Descartes Labs, a satellite information startup, told the Times. "They need to realize that their traditional competitive advantage — information — will be available to everyone."
Nearly 730 Earth observation satellites were launched over the past decade, according to Euroconsult, a research firm that tracks the space market. In the next 10 years, 2,220 more will follow them into orbit, the Times reported.
Orbital Insight, in Palo Alto, Calif., was one of the first companies to build a business around cube satellite data, tracking activity in more than 260,000 retail parking lots across the country to track customer traffic, and monitoring the levels of more than 25,000 oil tanks around the world, the Times reported.
But the technology goes beyond business uses, the Times reported.
Fred Abrahams, a researcher with the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, sees the cube satellites as a check on the world's companies and governments, tracking everything from illegal mining and logging operations to home demolitions.
"They make it that much harder to hide large-scale abuses," he told the Times.
Some warn there are limits to satellite intelligence gathering, noting that finding useful information in satellite imagery can be expensive.
"You have to want to look at a variety of activities across the Earth and look at them daily — or weekly — for the cost to makes sense," Shawana Johnson, a veteran of satellite intelligence work who is now the president of Global Marketing Insights, told the Times.