At a time when it feels like we're all under constant surveillance, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is all the more baffling. How, the world is still wondering, can an entire passenger jet disappear into thin air? Nobody knows for sure. But Will Marshall, co-founder and CEO of the satellite company, Planet Labs, believes that vanishing acts like that may not be possible in the future.
On the TED stage this week, Marshall discussed his vision of having mini-satellites surrounding the globe, taking pictures of "every single place on the planet every day," like a line-scanner for the planet. Losing a plane, he says, should never be a problem again.
Like many Silicon Valley startups before it, Planet Labs began in a garage with a dream of disrupting an industry. That's where any similarities to the typical software startup end. In February, the company launched 28 breadbox-sized satellites into orbit. Over the next year, Planet Labs will launch over 100 satellites, which are hitching a ride on U.S. and Russian rockets. They will make up the largest constellation of satellites in human history, according to Marshall.
The four-kilogram satellites (known as "Doves") are minuscule compared to the three-ton satellites used today, which can cost many hundreds of millions of dollars. Only one of these larger satellites can fit on a rocket, while Planet Lab's satellites—estimated by the company to be 95% cheaper than more traditional versions—can be packed together.
Planet Labs has launched a series of test satellites over the course of the last year. "Normally, that's been a huge amount of money. We're iterating quickly and testing them in orbit, and we have a higher risk tolerance, because if a few of the satellites fail, it's not the end of the world. " Marshall explained to me in an interview back at the Planet Labs offices.
Another potential advantage over bigger satellites: Planet Labs' devices, which contain many off-the-shelf parts, can reveal sharper close-up images—as close as the tops of trees. Planet Labs isn't without its competitors—another startup called SkyBox also makes small satellites that can catch a ride on rockets. But that company's satellites, which do have a higher resolution, are not being launched into space as quickly, and they're a bit larger.
Planet Labs says it already has a number of customers. Marshall wouldn't disclose individual names, but he says they are in the mapping and agriculture sector, as well as NGOs who want to use the satellites to track deforestation and illegal fishing.
"On the humanitarian side, we can monitor every tree on the planet. That gives us a completely different window into deforestation," Marshall says. "Instead of once a year looking and saying there's a big new hole in the Amazon rainforest, we can track it as its happening and provide the information to those who can help prevent that." He asserted that the satellites don't invade privacy since they can't zoom in close enough to pick out individual people.