UPDATED 12:29 EDT / JUNE 27 2016

NEWS

Orbital Insight raises $20M to make satellite imagery more accessible

The commercial satellite industry captures a tremendous amount of imagery from the Earth’s surface, but there aren’t enough people to manually go through every picture. As a result, organizations miss out on a lot of valuable intelligence that could potentially help their executives make better decisions. The issue inspired former NASA engineer James Crawford to strike out on his own in 2013 and launch a geoanalytics startup called Orbital Insight Inc., which today closed a $20 million funding round led by Alphabet Inc.’s GV.

The investment also saw the participation of four other backers including In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm with close ties to the U.S. intelligence community. The cash infusion will enable Orbital Insight to finance the development of new features for its namesake cloud service, which uses deep learning algorithms to automate the analysis of satellite images. With the human element out of the equation, organizations can scan tens of thousands of pixels every second for details that hold importance to their operations. The sky’s the limit for how the technology can be applied.

A retailer, for instance, could use Orbital Insight’s service to measure weekly changes in the number of cars parked near key locations. Such observations can be correlated with sales data and weather forecasts to gain a more objective view of store performance. In total, the startup claims to have analyzed vehicle measurements from some 50 brick-and-mortar chains since entering the market. And its platform is also finding extensive use in the financial sector, where over 60 firms currently employ its algorithms to monitor oil tanks, urban development and other economic indicators that affect stock prices. Even non-profits like the World Bank are showing interest.

The participation of In-Q-Tel in today’s funding round suggests that the public sector, and the intelligence communicate in particular, will be the next major focus area for Orbital Insight. Its service is already being used by several government agencies, which should make the expansion relatively smooth. TechCrunch reports that startup plans to establish offices in Washington, London and several other major world cities as part of the effort. Having a presence in such key locations will also enable James Crawford and his team to better target local enterprises like banks that are similarly looking to make better use of geoanalytics.

But the road ahead won’t be easy: GV’s Andy Wheeler told TechCrunch that a number of the satellite operators who supply Orbital Insight with imagery plan to launch their own analytics services. However, he believes that the startup’s strategy of sourcing data from multiple vendors provides a major competitive advantage over individual satellite operators. It also helps that Orbital Insight already has dozens of paying clients under its belt, which can go a very long way during a sales presentation.

Image via Pixabay

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