The geospatial and remote sensing sector has exploded in the last five years and is poised for even more growth over the next decade. In the initial years, companies in this sector were pretty niche - with customers that were primarily in government and the military. And then, as computing power became cheaper, satellite and drone costs decreased to a fraction of what they used to cost and other uses of remote sensing and spatial data were discovered, the sector exploded with new startups entering the field and larger companies expanding their offerings. In fact, the market in geospatial data and remote sensing is expected to double from $53 billion in 2019 to $110 -$134 billion by 2025 at an annualized growth rate of ~15%.
It’s a global market, with the United States being the largest player so far with 40% of the market, closely followed by the European Union. The rest of the world is also growing rapidly, with India, China and Argentina being the leading markets in the developing world.
The market for geospatial data and remote sensing can be divided into data collection, data modeling for specific applications and data visualization.
Until about ten years ago, remote sensing data and data from UAVs were obtained mainly from satellites and aircrafts operated by governments around the world for a small fee. Today, data from government sources like LandSat and Copernicus satellites, are free - and can be accessed at the click of a button. However, since many applications now require data that are at a finer spatial and temporal resolution than what are available from government satellites, we’ve seen several startups enter the field to fill that gap. Of course, the data from these commercial vendors are more expensive than government sources, but they’re higher resolution and often targeted to specific sectors.
The largest and best known startup in the satellite imagery space is Planet (formerly known as Planet Labs). Planet, which was started by former NASA employees, uses a constellation of 150 small satellites (small sats or nano sats) to collect images of the Earth at resolutions ranging from centimeters to a few meters - which is much finer than the 30m resolution provided by government satellites. Other startups in the satellite imagery production sector include Maxar (formed after the merger of Digital Globe, SSL and Radiant Systems), Spire and Satellogic, which also use several small satellites to collect data. The imagery provided by these companies is used in agriculture, energy resource monitoring, disaster management, climate change monitoring, forestry and land use - a whole suite of clean technology applications.
While satellite imagery can be used for larger scale applications, questions related to local, field-specific issues usually need data at an even finer resolution. Drones and UAVs are typically the providers of imagery at this scale - and with drones becoming cheaper and more popular, there are several startups entering this sector. These startups, similar to the ones in the commercial satellite space, operate and collect imagery from drones and UAVs - which are then used in a multitude of applications. Some of the best known startups in this sector are DJI, Drone Deploy, Precision Hawk, and Raptor Maps. The sector is poised to grow extremely rapidly over the next 5 years, as more applications of drone data are discovered.
Providing the imagery is well and good - but how does it actually solve problems? This is where the second set of startups comes in - companies that use the data generated by Planet, DJI and other companies to build sector specific applications. These companies build models, algorithms, dashboards and work with customers in the sector to solve their problems. A company like Ceres Imaging, for example, uses high-resolution satellite imagery for agriculture - to predict crop yield, identify areas that are impacted by pests and manage irrigation operations. Other startups use remote sensing data to monitor solar arrays, identify oil spills, monitor deforestation, direct resources for better disaster management, analyze and predict economic activity - all sorts of applications! The best known startups and companies working in this area are Orbital Insights, Descartes Labs, Indigo, and UrtheCast.
The last category of startups and companies operating in this sector are the companies that build software tools that can analyze remote sensing data, create dashboards, maps and other visualizations for a wide spectrum of organizations across different sectors. A company like ESRI, for example, is known for its GIS software that allows organizations to create maps of spatial data, analyze satellite and drone images and more recently, use machine learning tools to perform certain types of analyses. One of the best known startups in the space is Tableau, which helps users create beautiful dashboards and interact with large databases. Other companies in the space are Google, with Google Earth Engine which allows users to explore and visualize different aspects of locations on the Earth, Mapbox - which has a large suite of tools for developers and modelers who want to work with spatial data, and Carto - which has several tools for spatial analysis and modeling.
All these companies and many more in the space are building new algorithms, combining spatial data, remote sensing and machine learning in amazing new ways and creating a wave of novel technologies that are changing the clean tech sector in many different ways. It’s definitely an exciting time to be working in the space - and if you’re curious to learn more about how these technologies and how they work, join us in our live workshops or sign up for the entire series of workshops and online courses here.