Big data is getting so big, it’s slipping the surly bonds of Earth.
A startup called Orbital Insight, which recently raised nearly $9 million in funding, is using satellite imagery and cutting-edge computing techniques to estimate global oil surplus, predict crop shortfalls before harvest time and spot retail trends by keeping track of the number of cars in big-box parking lots. It should also be possible to train the software to spot illegal deforestation early and better track climate change.
The company uses machine learning techniques and computing networks that mimic the human brain to spot patterns in massive amounts of visual data. Facebook uses similar techniques to recognize faces in uploaded images and auto-tag you and your friends. But instead of searching for faces, Orbital Insight is taking advantage of the growing abundance of satellite imagery, thanks to the rise of small, low-cost satellites, and teaching their networks to automatically recognize things like vehicles, the rate of construction in China and the shadows cast by floating-lid oil containers, which change depending on how full they are.
It would be impossible, of course, for humans to sift through regularly updated global satellite imagery. But with massively parallel computers and advanced pattern-recognition techniques, Orbital Insight aims to deliver types of data that haven’t available before. Current global oil estimates, for instance, are already six weeks old when they’re published. With Orbital, analysis of crop yields could be delivered mid-season—important information to have, whether you’re a high-level United Nations worker trying to get ahead of a food crisis, or a commodities trader working for a hedge fund.
Orbital Insight hasn’t been around long—it was founded in late 2013 and only came out of “stealth mode” late last year. But the company’s founder, James Crawford, has plenty of experience in compatible fields. A former autonomy and robotics head at NASA’s Ames Research Center, he also spent two years as engineering director at Google Books, turning archived printed pages into searchable text.
Several companies, like Spire and Inmarsat, and even Tesla’s Elon Musk, are working on hardware—designing and launching new networks of satellites—but Crawford says Orbital Insight is instead focusing purely on software.