WHEN planning a road trip or buying a new house, it has become routine to scope out the area on Google Maps.
But what if the images you found weren't blurry, dated snapshots - but live and crystal clear? Imagine cruising down the motorway, looking for traffic jams 80km ahead or scoping out your first-born's university digs, noting that the pub across the road attracts a big outdoors crowd after 10 ("better pack the earplugs").
This may sound like
Founded in 2009, Skybox launched its first satellite into orbit last year. In December, it beamed back to Earth the first commercial HD video shot from space. For an encore, Skybox's engineers sent their fridge-sized satellite to float above
To give an idea of how impressive this is, it's worth remembering that even in the early '70s the US military was using one-shot imaging satellites that took their pictures and then ejected the blurry, black and white film straight out of orbit to be caught by airplanes circling below like anxious firemen.
If these satellites were the equivalent of disposable cameras then SkyBox's craft are like roving CCTV. They're cheap, always-on space craft and by 2016 the company plans to operate a constellation of 24 - all capable of sending back video and stills of anywhere on Earth, to anywhere on Earth.
For the casual observer it might seem that this sort of capability is nothing new. Anyone who has played around on current versions of Google Earth will have flicked back the scroll wheel on their mouse, casually zooming out all the way to watch the Earth spinning through space, as real-time as we'd ever need or want for something so apparently unchanging. But|distance erases detail and the trip back down to the surface of Google Earth takes users through a |patchwork of old and new imagery, stitched together from a variety |of sources.
And although these pictures may seem detailed enough to us, they're actually constrained by limits set by the US government.
At least, they were until this month. Just one week after Google announced they'd purchased SkyBox, the
"If you imagine a satellite sat above your office then the old resolution could probably make out your desk. The new imagery - where each pixel measures around 31cm - can now make out what's on your desk," explains
"When you reach this sort of frequency you can begin to add in what we call 'pattern of life' analysis. This means looking at activity in terms of movement - not just identification."
When - and indeed whether -
In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Skybox co-founder
"We think we are going fundamentally to change humanity's understanding of the economic landscape on a daily basis," he said.
For once, this sort of claim (familiar in the world of tech boosterism) is more than hyperbole. With abundant satellite imagery, whole new realms of data analysis are opened up. Investors will be able to predict the price of food by studying a country's farmland; they can gauge a gold mine's productivity by sizing up its slag heaps. One story that's common in the Skybox mythos is of an analyst at UBS who was able to predict
"There's an emerging industry here - although
There's no doubt that
From the first time
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