Planet lands in Seattle and is on target to image Earth in real time | Crain's Seattle

Planet lands in Seattle and is on target to image Earth in real time

Planet, the newest member of the Seattle area’s galaxy of satellite data operations, is on track to shoot high-resolution images of the entire Earth every day.

The San Francisco-based satellite imaging company recently opened offices in Bellevue, where it plans to dip into the local tech talent pool to build its team of software engineers. With additional offices in Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands, Planet has more than 350 employees.

The 6-year-old startup has hired three engineers locally so far and aims to add about 12 more by the end of the year.

“We are happy to join the community,” said Karthik Govindhasamy, Planet’s chief technology officer and a former Microsoft and Nokia engineer. “It made logical sense to us to open an office here given the ecosystem, given the tech and space industries here.”

To attract the talent they seek, Planet is competing with a number of other businesses in the area, including SpaceX, Planetary Resources, Spaceflight Industries and its BlackSky subsidiary, not to mention the big aerospace companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing, Blue Origin, Tethers Unlimited and Vulcan Aerospace.

“We are confident that the Planet mission will excite the talent to come and work for us,” Govindhasamy said.

So far, he said, Planet has launched 145 of its Dove nanosatellites into orbit, 61 of which are currently operational

“We’re gathering an unprecedented amount of global data, and delivering it quickly online like nobody has done before. We’ve gone up to collecting 50 million square kilometers of imagery a day. When you think about it, that’s one-third of the Earth’s land mass.”

Aggressive expansion

This quarter, if launch schedules hold, Planet will more than double its fleet, upping imaging “revisit” rates to three to six days per week. The Doves are normally deployed from the International Space Station or India’s PSLV launch vehicle.

The ability to access more imagery more quickly and easily is the reason California-based Orbital Insight partnered with Planet, said Kevin O'Brien, Orbital's chief business officer. Orbital extracts economic metrics from satellite and drone imagery to measure change on national and global levels.

“Planet is really changing the industry because they’re launching this massive constellation of CubeSats, or small satellites, and one of the big benefits of that is they’re going to be imaging the earth on a real-time basis,” O’Brien said. “Instead of visiting an oil tank or bridge or some other type of asset every two weeks, they can do it once a week or once every two days, and, eventually, every day.”

Diverse applications

Currently, Planet data is being distributed in more than 100 countries and serves a variety of industries, the biggest being agriculture, Govindhasamy said. Companies like FarmersEdge, Farmshots and the Climate Corporation analyze Planet data to help farmers map out management zones, determine nitrogen levels and moisture content in soil, and monitor crop growth overs a season.

Analytical firm Descartes Labs uses the imagery to forecast corn and soy crops weekly, while Orbital can look at oil storage tanks and calculate world oil production.

Planet was one of the first companies to realize that universities working with aerospace students in the mid-1990s to build CubeSats were on to a good thing, said Phil Smith, a space industry analyst with The Tauri Group. It costs roughly $100,000 to build a CubeSat, which is inexpensive in the space industry, he noted.

“Planet discovered that three CubeSats together – to make a shape like a loaf of bread – can take some pretty neat pictures of Earth.” Investors thought it was a good idea too and allowed Planet to raise $183 million in seed funding, Smith added.

And while the company is certainly motivated by money, it also cares about providing data to improve the health of the planet, he said.

January 19, 2017 - 5:11pm