Commercial GEOINT – how to profit from a booming space economy

Being adept at commercial GEOINT has long given big business the edge, and the booming space economy makes geospatial analytics add up.
27 November 2023

Profits from space: satellite data can highlight valuable market trends on Earth.

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• Comercial GEOINT offers significant business bonuses.
• The cost of gathering useful GEOINT data used to be prohibitive.
• Now though, it’s becoming ever more viable for more businesses.

The list of businesses that wouldn’t benefit from having access to satellite data is very short. Once companies realize what’s possible using geographic information system (GIS) tools, there’s no looking back. Beyond logistics opportunities, commercial geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) can enrich market analysis and provide early access to industry trends.

Over a decade ago, satellite analytics firms such as RS Metrics and Orbital Insight put a hi-tech spin on an ages-old method of predicting retail company profits – counting customer vehicles in store parking lots.

Wanting to know more, Panos Patatoukas of the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkley set out to quantify the value of this commercial GEOINT to hedge funds, using a dataset featuring 4.8 million satellite images of parking lots at 67,000 store locations across the US.

“The informational advantage yields 4% to 5% in the three days around quarterly earnings announcements, which is a significant return over such a short window,” he writes, commenting on the published analysis titled On the Capital Market Consequences of Big Data: Evidence from Outer Space.

Commercial GEOINT beats AI predictions

Other researchers in the field have subsequently found that commercial GEOINT allowed analysts to predict company earnings more accurately than an AI-based forecast model.

One concern raised is that the cost of acquiring and processing data puts this information out of reach of all but a few analysts with deep pockets. However, the proliferation of satellite constellations and affordable GIS options is changing that. Today, cost is substantially less of a barrier to profiting from commercial GEOINT.

“Earth observation-derived information is more accessible than ever and viable as a technology for business,” writes the UK Satellite Applications Catapult on its website.

Commercial GEOINT includes feeds from high-resolution constellations such as the PLÉIADES NEO satellites, which pass over earth locations more than once a day. SkySat – a constellation of 21 high-resolution Earth imaging satellites operated by Planet Labs – now has an image cadence up to a maximum of 12 times per day thanks to the addition of recently launched craft.

On TechHQ, we’ve written about how satellite imagery offers a wealth of agricultural insights and can determine whether fields are being plowed or have been damaged by floods. And imagery from Pléiades and SkySat constellations adds to what’s possible by enabling high-throughput phenotyping – in other words, identifying crop varieties most resistant to disease and with other desirable traits.

Other practical examples of commercial GEOINT include infrastructure monitoring. The UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult has published a case study showing how satellite data can be used to monitor relative displacements of buildings on Earth – in this case, the Jacques Cartier Bridge and Victoria Bridge, both in Canada.

Manual bridge inspections are time-consuming and costly, and workers face difficulties in accessing hard-to-reach areas and spotting deterioration that’s invisible to the eye. Given all these obstacles, the frequency of such inspections can be insufficient to tackle escalating problems.

To remedy this, developers built a GIS tool, which they named BRIGITAL, to help asset managers within Transport Canada. Also, highlighting another trend in commercial GEOINT, BRIGITAL features intelligence gathered not just from space, but uses data from a range of sources, including ground sensors.

As Space Capital – a venture capital firm investing in the space economy – points out in its GEOINT playbook, “The integration of geospatial data with the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data analytics has opened new avenues for businesses to gain insights.”

Reasons to use commercial GEOINT

Drivers for companies wanting to adopt geospatial solutions fall into three categories – better decision-making, cost reduction, and efficiency gains. And for companies already using commercial business intelligence (BI) software, it’s likely that the latest version will suit some kind of geospatial data integration.

Examples of BI software with geospatial options:

Plus there are programming libraries such as GeoPandas for users of Python, as well as JavaScript tools, including Leaflet, OpenLayers, and Mapbox. Also, Google has recently made its Earth Engine available for commercial use, which speaks to increased business interest in GEOINT.

“We really want to accelerate the types of innovation that we’ve seen from the scientific and NGO community and bring that now to public and private sector users,” said Rebecca Moore, director and founding engineer of Google Earth Engine. “If we’re going to address the challenges we face, we need all sectors of society to be empowered to do so.”

Commercial clients of Google Earth include Unilever, which is using a combination of Google Earth Engine and Google Cloud to monitor its supply chain to realize sustainability targets. Also, having access to reliable data on how the planet is changing gives commercial clients valuable GEOINT to help manage their exposure to climate risk.

Google Earth Engine has a global data archive stretching back 50 years, and it updates every 15 minutes, which makes it a nimble tool for commercial clients to visualize trends relevant to their business operations.

“We have a lot of customers that are solving large geospatial problems using BigQuery,” Kyle Campbell – global partner lead for Geosustainability Business at Google Earth – told Geo for Good sSummit attendees in October 2023. “And Earth Engine works really well with that.”

Users beginning their commercial GEOINT journey using Google Earth will benefit from brushing up on their knowledge of Maps and Vertex AI (Google’s cloud-based machine learning platform), Campbell explains – noting how the combination spans a range of common use cases.

Google lists over 30 Earth Engine partners, including consulting and professional services firms Deloitte, Accenture, and Capgemini. And there are a wide variety of tech companies in the line-up.

Ubilabs – a Germany-headquartered expert in data and location technology – has also teamed up with the US tech giant. Ubilabs provides live tracking in 2D and 3D of the Red Bull X-Alps race, which lets viewers compare the progress of 32 athletes, who race against each other (by foot and by paraglider) over two weeks.

The use cases for commercial GEOINT are diverse and, as mentioned, it’s hard to imagine an organization that wouldn’t benefit from the better decision-making, cost-reduction, and operating efficiency improvements that geospatial data can bring.