A tiny B.C. startup company has a bold plan to take on Google Earth and giant satellite-imaging companies: By hitching a ride on a Russian rocket.
Most images from Earth are beamed down from cameras mounted on satellites that can cost well over $100-million to build and launch. But privately held Urthecast of Vancouver says that by next year, it will be offering free, freshly captured high-definition video streaming of images of Earth over the Internet as well as medium-resolution photos from space at a cost of just $10-million to the company.
Urthecast has contracted the U.K.'s government-owned Rutherford Appleton Laboratories to build two cameras and Richmond, B.C.-based MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. to build the associated hardware. The equipment is expected to be delivered later this year.
Then, some time in the first half of 2013, Russian space authorities have agreed to send the equipment on a Soyuz rocket and install it on the Russian portion of the International Space Station. Russian space agency RSC Energia will transmit the data back to earth and to Urthecast. The only cost to Urthecast to get the camera into orbit is training and an agreement to share the data with the Russians, Urthecast president Scott Larson said. "The Russians are providing the launch, the installation and the downlink. Because of our relationship with our Russian partners, we'll be able to get the cameras up for significantly less than other satellites."
In return, the Russian government gets a high-profile showcase for their large investment in the space station, Mr. Larson said.
The plan may sound unusual; so is the company's revenue-generation plan. Mr. Larson said Urthecast plans to stream the 150 minutes of video captured per day free and "near-live" on the Internet. He figures enough people will log in to watch that he'll be able to sell sponsorships and advertising. "We think everyone in the world will come to our site once," he said.
In addition, the company will sell its medium-resolution images. While the market for such pictures is established and competitive, Mr. Larson said "we'll offer the discount version" given Urthecast's much lower costs.
Urthecast's plans have already raised some eyebrows. "From the beginning we've been skeptical," said Randy Attwood, managing editor of Space Quarterly. He pointed out that the company has downgraded its promise to offer the images to "near-live," from "in real time." In addition, because Urthecast doesn't own the technology it is using, and Mr. Larson acknowledged "anyone can get a camera built for several million dollars," that means Urthecast's single competitive advantage is its relationship with Russian agencies, forged through two former MDA employees who joined Urthecast this year.
Mr. Larson said his company has already signed letters of intent for $50-million worth of business with seven customers, including the United Nations Institute for Training and Research's operational satellite applications program (UNOSAT), which uses satellite images to track humanitarian crises and other disasters.
"We thought this really could be a nice addition to what we can provide" to UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and member states, said Einar Bjorgo, a senior specialist with UNOSAT. "We can really use some of this information to see in detail what is happening on the ground."
The company won't be the first to deploy space-based images to scrutinize disasters-in-the-making: Actor George Clooney and his Satellite Sentinel project used satellite photos to cast a light on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
As for the risk of working with a startup, Mr. Bjorgo replied: "We are a small group ourselves. Even if they are an upstart ... what's appealing to us is the idea."