Bill Gates backs plan to cover earth in video surveillance satellites

“A satellite company planning to launch a $1bn (£700m) network of satellites to provide ‘live and unfiltered’ coverage of the Earth has been backed by former Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates and Japanese tech giant Softbank,” Matthew Field reports for The Telegraph. “The tech leaders are backing EarthNow, which plans to launch 500 satellites to cover Earth’s atmosphere in video surveillance and provide live video feedback with only one second of delay.”

“The Washington-based satellite company has the backing of aerospace giant Airbus as well as billionaire Gates and Softbank, the Japanese conglomerate that has invested billions in tech companies from Uber to chipmaker Arm,” Field reports. “EarthNow founder Russel Hannigan said: ‘Our objective is simple; we want to connect you visually with Earth in real-time.'”

Read more in the full article here.

“Based in a Seattle suburb with a minimal staff, the startup is being unveiled as interest surges in small satellites operating relatively close to Earth to serve both commercial and national-security markets,” Andy Pasztor reports for The Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Hannigan said EarthNow is targeting a broad range of applications including tracking illegal fishing, watching migrations in conflict zones and monitoring agriculture.”

Read more in the full article here.

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26 Comments

      1. Who has a little brother called Mark Zuckerberg that looks like him.

        Seriouslt, check out photos of the young Bill Gates to see how his evilness looks like evil Mark Sh!ttaberg

    1. OK. After reviewing their website, several articles out there, and this guy’s Linkedin page let’s get something straight.

      This is 100% hype. A lot of what they claim is PURE BS. Some of what they claim has already been announced and better by others.

      First, with 500 satellites and the biggest commercially available focal plane arrays available today, the resolution works out for each pixel to be 104 x 104 meters. That’s damn poor resolution. DigitalGlobe is doing 0.31 x 0.31 meter resolution (albeit only once a day). There’s a competing system out there (Live Earth Imaging — see liveearthimaging.net) that will do as good as 5 x 5 meter resolution and at frame rates better than this proposed system! Further Live Earth Imaging will do unlit objects at night where these guys won’t.

      These guys (EarthNow) claim the latency (time from the event happening until the imagery gets to the end user) of as little as one second. That’s just not physically possible even if you assume the speed of light is infinite!

      They claim the entire system will be about $1 billion or so. Well if you make the *extremely* optimistic assumption that to get each satellite on orbit is just $2 million for all costs (that includes the satellite bus, the sensors, the integration and test, the launch, the launch insurance, the on orbit insurance, the launch range costs, etc., etc.) then a 500 satellite constellation costs $1 billion JUST FOR THE SPACE SEGMENT. Command and control, ground sites, data processing sites, ground distribution centers, etc., etc. will likely cost another $0.5 billion. So just to get the first full constellation up and running it will cost, optimistically, $1.5 billion. Further low Earth orbit satellites don’t last very long unless they are big expensive one’s like DigitalGlobe’s (cost $250 to $350 million each) or such. Thus these guys will have to replace them every 3 to five years. This means the 10 year life of they system will cost $2.5 to $4.5 billion. (And, by the way the current, official estimate of 100% of the world’s satellite remote sensing market is only about $2 billion a year! So, in order to make things financially work, these guys will have to capture one third or more of the TOTAL market, worldwide! Something that’s extremely unlikely to happen. — NOTE: total market includes the market taken up by national satellites like Nigeria’s satellite, Turkey’s two satellites, the U.A.E’s satellite, etc. and it’s virtually impossible for these guys to attack those national markets.)

      Further, these guys have made the ridiculous claim that *each* and *every* one of their 500 satellites will have processing power (CPUs, etc.) that is greater than ALL the satellites currently in orbit today! There are some REALLY smart satellites up there today. To come even close to the kind of processing power they claim they will have and make it space worthy will cost hundreds of millions in development costs and then likely hundreds of thousands of dollars per satellite when they build out the full 500 hundred of them (which clearly negates the radical assumption of only $2 million to get the satellite built and on orbit.)

      Finally, there are about 400 remote sensing satellites up in low Earth orbit today. Some commercial, some governmental. If you do a full blown simulation — and I have — of those about 400 satellites (using their real orbit tracks and their maximum, theoretical observation time) you’ll find that the average coverage (imaging gap of any specific spot on the Earth) is about 20 minutes and the worst case gap is about 2 1/2 hours! That is no where near continuous. Yes, 500 satellites will decrease those gap times, but going from 400 satellites to 500 satellites won’t cut those gap times in half. 500 satellites certainly won’t give you continuous coverage like they claim.

      The list of hype claims these guys are putting forth that can’t bear out goes on and on and on.

      Thus the bottom line is… this is all hype. A lot of what they are saying is just not physically possible. Some of what they are saying is already being developed (and developed in a better fashion) than these guys.

      Sorry for the ultra long post, but stuff like this that is pure hype — and wrong hype at that — just pisses me off.

      1. Great points. I’ll just add that with a few extra billion in capital investment, these guys could go from 500 satellites to 5,000 satellites, and improve algorithms and so on. Bill Gates may have a soulless resume but he’s not an idiot. He knows it and Apple knows it: You don’t invest in the market leader if you want to change the world. You choose the most promising team with the most malleable technical foundations.

        I don’t know anything about this company—you’re way ahead of me—but don’t discount it because their announcements to date are crap compared to better funded alternatives.

        1. Bill Gates has had some spectacular failures with regards to his investments in space. In fact, to my knowledge, none of any of them in which he has invested have succeeded. The most spectacular failure was Teledesic. It was to be a constellation back in the early to mid 90s that was going to do what SpaceX, OneWeb, etc. are claiming they will do in the next few years. Teledesic initially was supposed to have 840 operational satellites with 84 on orbit spares to bring the Internet to the entire world. It burned to about $50 million or so (in 1990s dollars) and ended up with absolutely nothing other than some stacks of paper (remember, early 1990s).

          Airbus has similarly made bold statements over the past several years, even at one point publicly claiming they were going to put up a system that would do real-time imaging with resolution of 3 m per pixel from geostationary orbit. I guess the press release guys and their bosses didn’t know that each of those satellites would have cost $2 to $3 billion each.

          In this “space” (pardon the pun) a venture like this becomes the pseudo market leader because of the big names involved. It does not matter that DigitalGlobe already has a proven track record. It does not matter that Planet has a large constellation of satellites already in operation. It does not matter that Live Earth Imaging will do live imaging better and more cost effectively. Bill Gates and company will suck all the air out of the room. Bill Gates can get up on stage and say “We’re going to do this. It will work.” All too many people will drink the Kool-aid. It does not matter whether it really is technically feasible or not.

          Finally, to your first point… All these entities need to make a profit (well, maybe not Bill Gates). If you throw more capital investment into it you have to make even more in revenues to cover those investments. It’s that old “Return on Investment” (ROI) thing. There is only so big a market currently and this system being added will only grow the market just so much. There comes a point (like happened with Teledesic and other similar ventures since) where the financials just CANNOT close. When they all realize that they walk away, but in the meantime the’ve left a wake of destruction behind them damaging all the other players trying to do it right.

      2. There are times when I despair of the comments made on this site and then there are those rare occasions when I raise my hat to somebody who makes an intelligent and insightful contribution on a topic.

        I’m delighted to say that your comment is most definitely in the latter category.

        My knowledge of satellite technology is mainly limited to broadcasting satellite services, but the things that I do know align with what you have said.

        The only area where I question your assumptions is with regard to the latency. While the claim of one second is unlikely to be met in reality, the actual time taken for a geostationary satellite to send a signal to earth is about 3-400 ms, depending on whether the satellite is overhead or near the horizon. What we see as “satellite delays” during live broadcasts is due to the signal going up and then down, together with quite a bit of additional latency due to signal processing at the uplink, within the satellite, at the downlink, during the distribution from the downlink to the studio and then within the studio complex. Individually each delay is small, but they all add up.

        With near earth orbits, the delay would be proportionally less, but against that, the data still needs to be processed and distributed, which will introduce additional delays. They might struggle to get it done in less than a second, but it might not be far off either.

        I also find myself wondering if the resultant images will be required to include programmable “blind spots”, so that there is no generally available clear image of specified places, such military facilities or sensitive research establishments?

        I would have liked to have read more, but the linked article is behind a paywall.

        1. Latency for remote sensing systems has many factors besides light and RF travel times.

          Extremely large focal plane arrays have two predominant time intervals that need to be attended. The first is integration time — the time it takes to get enough photons to generate enough charge in each pixel so you get a decent image. For these large arrays being placed in space and reasonable optics integration times can be 100 milliseconds or more. (Note that most space based remote sensing optics are not fast optics. Some of them are as slow as F/16 or worse. The reason is that faster optics require larger apertures, i.e., larger mirrors and larger lenses. As a general rule the cost of these optics runs as the square of the radius of the aperture, or worse. So doubling the radius of the aperture is four times the cost, or worse. So you end up with moderate to slow optics to keep costs down.)

          The second thing with FPAs as large as they might use is the read out time. The read out time on these large FPAs can be one half a second or more. Some are as bad as a full second to read them out. Some of them can have as many as 16 taps that run in parallel to get the data out of each pixel, but with that many pixels and reasonable clock rates it still takes a long time to read them out.

          Thus, even if you ignore *everything* else, the time to take the picture can be 0.6 to 1.1 seconds all by itself. These extremely large FPAs don’t do video and don’t run at 24 frames a second. Some of them are lucky to get one frame a second.

          Then you add light & RF travel time, data processing time, distribution time, etc., and you come up with something significantly greater than one second.

          With regard to imagery restrictions…
          All U.S. based Earth Remote Sensing Satellite Systems (what are technically called Earth Exploration-satellite Systems [aka EESS]) come under NESDIS under the U.S. Department of Commerce. There are restrictions as to what you can distribute to the world. There have been going back to the 90s. To my knowledge there are no restrictions as to what you can take images of (how would they stop you?). It’s just that there are strong restrictions with regard to the people and organizations you can sell/give it too.

      3. Thanks for the post. Very interesting.
        Instead of focusing on “whether we can” we should be focusing on “whether we should”, and if we should, under what conditions.

        I assume the Constitution to be proper and valid 1000 years from now.

    2. “As if Facebook selling your data wasn’t bad enough.” wasn’t bad enough, because the NSA was likely able to intercept all of FBs data.

      People were surprised at the Chinese facial recognition they are rolling out, but no one mentions what US organizations are doing with the same data.

  1. Good to know Gates, the inventor of user violation and exploitation, hasn’t lost his creepy and of-questionable-legality touch. The man is a douche. I’d call him a super villain but he just isn’t that smart.

  2. If you go to Youtube and type “Ross McNutt” there are several Bloomberg News videos that show how this man would fly surveillance airplanes over cities for extended periods of time. For example, on his video, he can see a crime committed, then he can “rewind” the video for 24 hours, to track the paths of the assailants back to their homes . . . watch the Youtube videos — they will make you question the whole notion of surveillance satellites and how they might be used.

  3. The Gates Gang would surveille more and better than the US’s NRO spy agency? I Doubt it unless they collude.

    I doubt that Gates is doing it for my benefit; More likely it’s for population migration pattern detection done from the tripple-reinforced and tripple-guarded bunkers.

  4. Ever wonder why Billionaires are very concerned with things like population and security? Simple. They are concerned with keeping the world from going into chaos because if it did, they wouldn’t be able to enjoy their wealth.

    Case in point is this Gates scheme to monitor the earth. Bet dollars to doughnuts that his real reason is to spot trouble well in advance as well as keep an eye on things.

    Rockefeller is another rich family that is pushing things like a one world government, interdependence between countries, sustainability, etc. Why? Not because they are smarter than us. I believe it is because they are concerned about keeping the world intact so that they can enjoy their immense wealth in comfort and safety.

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