We regularly read about the space adventures of extravagant billionaires. But local companies are also benefiting from the space boom. We had a conversation with Sven Przywarra, founder of the satellite company LiveEO.
Sven, are you in a bad mood when it’s cloudy?
Because the satellites can’t see anything then you mean? (laughs) No, fortunately, the clouds move, so we can average them out over time. Some satellites can even see through the cloud cover without any problems thanks to radar sensors. And besides, even though this might contradict the general perception, we have enough cloud-free days almost everywhere.
Enough to observe the Earth from space.
That’s right. Enough to measure just about anything from space that you can imagine. From orbit, we can determine, for example, whether bridges are sinking, what damage has been done by storms, whether illegal logging is taking place, or how many cars a factory is producing. We can help companies monitor their production sites or assets, or keep an eye on their supply chains. The sky’s the limit when it comes to imagination.
If there are so many opportunities, why aren’t they being used?
They are! However, not yet in all the scenarios I just mentioned. The road ahead is already firmly set and it is even a logical necessity that we will replace stationary measurements with satellite observations in more and more areas. The cost per measurement by satellites is decreasing exponentially, while it remains almost constant for other methods.
What explains this drop in costs?
The change in the cost structure is enormous because two revolutions are paying attention to it, and they are happening simultaneously: the first is the data availability revolution. The privatization of space is currently launching more satellites into orbit than ever before, collecting more and more data about the Earth. The increasing supply is driving down the price. So many launches are firmly scheduled that the number of satellites in orbit will multiply in the coming years.
And the other revolution?
This is about advances in data processing, more specifically cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI), without which the enormous amounts of data would be impossible to analyze. We are seeing an exponential increase in the performance of our system: two years ago, it took us 14 days of computing time to analyze the entire German rail network. A year ago, we were at one day’s computing time; now it takes only a few hours – with a significant improvement in accuracy.
The market for Earth Observation is comparable to the Internet of the early 2000’s.Sven Przywarra
At what point in all this development are we?
The market for Earth Observation can be compared to the Internet of the early 2000s: the infrastructure is being expanded and processes are being standardized, making them suitable for mass use. As a result, not only the technical possibilities are growing, but also the awareness of companies that there are huge opportunities here.
Your company, LiveEO, wants to be at the forefront of this development.
Yes, and we already are. We have customers in many industries, but we started with satellite-based monitoring of linear infrastructure such as power lines, rails, and pipelines. We provide these customers with information on risks posed by trees along the line or ground movement, such as near mining activities. We are a global leader in this area, working with companies on every continent.
That sounds very specific.
It is. However, there is a strategy behind it. To analyze thousands of kilometers of infrastructure on a regular basis, we need an extremely scalable infrastructure and a high degree of automation. We are now building these structures within a profitable business model. Today, we let our algorithms detect trees along railroad tracks. Tomorrow, it could be rooftops in Kampala or ships on the Yangtze River – it doesn’t matter to the system. The bottom line is that we enable access to actionable business insights, directly from space.
For which industries could this information be relevant?
Among the early beneficiaries of our technology are insurance companies, for example, which evaluate objects in a completely location-independent and automated manner, and financial institutions, which evaluate production data from industrial companies. In the medium term, insights from earth observation will play a role in almost every value chain and will ultimately also reach the end consumer.
Satellite images on the smartphone?
Images probably won’t. But just as Google Maps today uses GPS data from other drivers to warn you of a traffic jam, in the future you may use Earth observation data to know whether there is still a sunbed available at the pool. All joking aside, there will certainly be disruptive changes. Exactly what those are is hard to predict. At LiveEO, we are determined to help shape these changes and are looking for companies that want to explore use cases of the technology with us.