Silicon Valley's Hottest Innovations 2016

Small is Beautiful

With its low-cost satellites, Planet Labs is bringing the benefit of real time data access to just about everyone

Dawid Bilski

Planet Lab - Company DetailsThey say good things come in small packages. And no one knows it better than satellite imagery firm, Planet Labs. Headquartered in Mission district, San Francisco, this start-up is designing building and launch satellites faster than any company or government at dramatically lower costs. What’s more, they are using consumer electronics to do it. It was while they were working as engineers in NASA Ames Research Centre in 2010 that Will Marshall, Robbie Schingler and Chris Boshuizen, founders of Planet Labs realised that their smartphones had more computing power than traditional satellites in orbit. The prohibitive costs to launch satellites and the enormous amount of time required often make traditional space companies risk-averse when it comes to experimenting with new technology. Hence, they choose to stick to what they know works. Planet Labs, which didn’t have that baggage to deal with, turned the industry on its head by building satellites cheap and fast, in huge numbers, and upgrading them like smartphones with every launch.

Their satellites, which are called Doves, are built on the 3U CubeSat format (10 cm X 10 cm X 30 cm). CubeSats were developed by two professors in Caltech and Stanford in the 1990s to help students experiment with satellites. The basic CubeSat is a 10-centimeter cube with a mass less than 1.33 kgs and has more than one unit depending on the mission. The miniature satellites reduce launch costs because they don’t weigh a lot and can also piggyride on a large satellite, making them suited for low orbits. It captures the imagery using a combination of telescope and camera.  

“The biggest cost is getting into space, so it is all about mass. It makes a huge difference if it is 5 kilograms or 500 kilograms. We brought the sensor revolution to space by redesigning the satellite and leveraging the convergence of the trends of commodification of data storage and computer,” says Robbie Schingler, co-founder and chief strategy officer, Planet Labs. “When we started the company in 2010, recognising that global change is happening faster than we can respond to, we ca

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