Planet Labs wants to change the way we see Earth — literally. Why? According to the company’s CEO, Will Marshall, “You can’t fix what you can’t see.”
With 150 satellites, Planet Labs hopes it can capture a complete image of the earth every day. Lined up with the sun and circling our planet in single-file line, the system captures images of Earth as it rotates. It’s a really big, outer-space line scanner.
Founded in 2010 by three ex-NASA scientists, a team of eight began designing prototypes of earth-imaging satellites in, of course, a garage. The founders had met 10 years before that at the United Nations. A conference focused on how satellites might help humanity got them thinking about the implications of democratizing satellite information. By 2013, the Silicon Valley-based company launched its first satellites and called them “Doves.” Planet Labs believes there are “endless, real-world applications” with access to this kind of data. In the business sector, those may be energy, agriculture, or urban development. It also provides near real-time monitoring of natural resources and deforestation. In April 2015, the company provided imagery to support disaster assessment efforts in Nepal after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake.
Planet Labs isn’t telling anyone what to do with its data set. Rather, it wants to enable an ecosystem for others to use. In September, Planet Labs committed $60 million in geospatial imagery in support of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. It is the largest philanthropic investment of its kind. During COP21, Planet Labs joined the “Data for Climate Action” campaign, which aims to harness data accelerate climate action.
“Getting into space can be hard,” Marshall says. Planet Labs has attempted 12 launch campaigns, six of them successful. In 2014, it lost 26 satellites when the Antares rocket crashed in Virginia. Earlier that same year, it lost eight more when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster exploded. But Planet Labs has built those failures into its business model. The company’s niche is its low-cost, scalable satellites. Marshall calls the company’s approach to building its product “agile aerospace.” The focus is on iterating quickly, testing in the field, and using off-the-shelf components.
The company doesn’t believe that satellites have to be complicated. Typical imaging satellites are, according to Marshall, 6-meters tall, 5-meters wide, and weigh 3 tons. Overbuilt to last a long time, these satellites can cost nearly a billion dollars. With that much money on the line, it has to work, which makes for a risk-averse industry. Doves, however, are about the size of a shoebox and expected to last just 1–3 years. When they reach the end of their lifecycles, they fall from orbit and burn up in the atmosphere. Their small profile lets them hitch rides as cargo on launches, keeping costs down. As of Dec. 7, 2015, 113 Doves have reached orbit, creating what the company claims is the largest fleet of Earth-imaging satellites in history.
To date, the company has raised $183.1 million over three rounds. Yuri Milner, an early investor in Facebook, Twitter, and Alibaba, led its $52 million Series B. Milner also took time away from his role at Y Combinator to help Planet Labs with its early launches. By 2016, Planet Labs hopes to have enough satellites in orbit to image the entire globe every day. “We’re on spaceship Earth. It’s fragile and finite,” says Marshall, “and we need to take care of it.”
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