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UrtheCast Pioneering a new IT Trend: Space-as-a-Service?

Canadian company UrtheCast, in partnership with the Russian Space Agency, has successfully launched a near-realtime video streaming payload into space. Russian cosmonauts will perform a spacewalk to attach it to the International Space Station in the next few weeks. 

I think it could mark the beginning of a major new capability in web software development.

What is UrtheCast?

The UrtheCast offering is an Earth Observation (EO) near-realtime video platform, available over the web.

Once the video cameras are installed, UrtheCast will be able to beam video imagery back to Earth. As the International Space Station passes over the Earth, up to 16 times a day, its cameras will film footage along its orbital path. Internet users can register their interest in certain locations and will receive notification in advance of the fly-over. They can then view the footage from UrtheCast’s website.

At a speech to the Canadian Space Summit in Ottawa, President and COO Wade Larson explained how the idea of UrtheCast arose. Several years ago, someone placed a webcam in a Bald Eagle’s nest on Hornby Island, near Vancouver. Millions of people around the world tuned in to watch the Bald Eagles feed their young. Wade Larson was one of those people. He said he suddenly thought, what kind of a market would there be to put cameras in outer space, and look down on the Earth? 

The idea of UrtheCast was born.

Who will use it?

UrtheCast offers the following:

  • 40-km bands of images, with 60-second flyover videos at up to 1-metre resolution
  • Latitudes cover much of the planet, a range roughly covering a strip from England to Chile 
  • Users can direct one of the cameras to point within that range, for a fee
  • Users can login and track events from space
  • Premium accounts can acquire exclusive rights to certain videos and imagery
  • Developers can extend the platform

 The full list of features is here.

There are many possible business uses:

  • In a previous post on Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) I mentioned how the DND spokesperson specifically credited the unclassified nature of the RADARSAT2 satellite pictures as making the satellite service useful to allies and organizations (because they could be shared). The same exact use-case applies to UrtheCast’s service. They can serve the same need.
  • Humanitarian need: Wade Larson mentioned the example of population displacement such as the refugees in war zones, or in disaster zones (see the point above)
  • As strange as it sounds, hedge fund manager and venture capitalists like to count cars outside retail stores or startup to see how hard staff are working, or estimate how busy the stores are. They use these counts to help winnow out bad investment
  • There is archival value of all this video imagery. This information can be used to do time-lapse evaluations of climate and environmental trends, such as forest fires, deforestation, or population growth for urban planning.
These uses cases would power the first 2 parts of their projected revenue model (as shown in a photo I took during the speech): Earth Observation Data Sales and Media Content Sales.

The 3rd part of the revenue model, web advertising, would likely monetize the free user accounts, in the traditional web banner model. The more people login to view the UrtheCast website, the more money they would make. Premium accounts would probably be ad-free.

The final part of the business model would occur once the use of their software platform becomes popular. For instance software companies could pay UrtheCast to use their software platform to build software we can’t even imagine. Imagine combining the videos with location-based tweets, and social media converations in near-realtime, to cover races, events, or news stories. 

UrtheCast makes its data available via an Application Programming Interface (API). This is a defined way it lets programmers create software upon its platform. So, it clearly wants developers to build upon it.

Why is UrtheCast cool?

UrtheCast is cool because it is a private industry space pioneer, and its use cases seem endless.

When investors perform their due diligence before investing in a software company, they ask how big the company’s “moat” is – in other words, what is the barrier to entry for any competitors. The larger the barrier to entry, the more time the company has to capitalize on its business model. 

UrtheCast seems to have a large moat, because any competitors will have to launch a competing payload into space. Could that be done? Sure – however in addition to spending millions of dollars to launch a payload, any competitors will have to negotiate a deal with the Russians to use the ISS, or come up with a similar platform, on a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. This isn’t impossible but it will require time and effort. 

So UrtheCast has first-mover advantage.

UrtheCast has already raised over $50 M in venture capital, a clear indication that investors take its promises seriously. Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, has partnered with it in exchange for free access to the resulting video streams.

In addition to these obvious signs of impending success, I think UrtheCast is a pioneer in a new IT trend: Space-as-a-Service.

What is Space-as-a-Service?

First, some background:

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) refers to a type of cloud-based (meaning internet-hosted) software platform that forms the underlying layer of an Information Technology ecosystem. The capabilities provided by the platform (for free or for a fee) allow other private companies, governments, non-government organizations, or individuals to build complex software solutions on top of it. 

Variations of Software-as-a-Service include Infrastructure-as-a-Service (hosted infrastructure) or Platform-as-a-Service (a configurable or programmable set of code building blocks). Famous examples of these -as-a-Service platforms include Salesforce.com, Amazon Web Services, or Microsoft’s Office 365 suite.

Characteristics of these as-a-Service (-aaS) platforms are:

  • They are metered (pay per use)
  • They are ubiquitous (they are available globally, with internet connectivity)
  • They can scale up from thousands to millions of users
  • They are configurable by their users (within pre-defined limits, and limited to that user or group of users)
  • The service provider can rapidly add new features
  • They use popular open software coding protocols that make it easy for software integration to occur

These platforms are popular because the service provider is responsible for all costs associated with hosting and administering the service. Since they are centrally managed and globally available, the service provider can obtain economies of scale and pass those savings on to their users.

Users of the platform take advantage of its core capabilities, and can extend them within certain limits, or combine them with other services. This is called a Mashup. An example mashup could be to use Google Maps data, and combine it with Salesforce.com customer relationship data, to create a map of all customers within a certain area. 

These service platforms have become so popular that they are effectively forming a $20 B industry (according to IT analyst firm Gartner), and growing.

So, what would Space-as-a-Service look like? 

For starters, Space-as-a-Service would have to exhibit the same qualities as other -as-a-Service platforms.

Then, it would have to provide capabilities that the other -as-a-Service models could not, simply by virtue of delivering its capabilities from space. 

So the litmus test is: what does the service platform offer that is unique to its extraterrestrial environment? 

UrtheCast fits the bill because its core capabilities are video imagery from Earth Orbit, something that it can only offer by virtue of being in space. 

What other Space-as-a-Service platforms could arise? 

  • Astronomy: Place observatories on the dark side of the moon and then providing metered access to scientists.
  • Telecommunications: Another likely candidate would involve a communications satellite platform, providing ad-hoc communications via satellites rather than requiring formal contracts like we now have with Telcommunications companies. There could even be a Space Internet for future explorers on deep-space missions. 
  • Solar Power from space: Another frequently-cited idea is to beam limitless amounts of energy down to the earth from solar arrays in space. Imagine a utility company allowing its users to sign up for and beam down the energy they need, for home use, powering remote cabins, factories, or mines, via a Space-as-a-Service platform. This would transform energy utility companies.
  • Space exploration using rovers or probes: Provide free or premium access to photos, videos, or mission data
  • Agriculture: Allow farms to access satellite-based maps of their fields, showing microclimate information, to make the best use of their land 

These are very early days – the spacewalk has yet to occur in order to complete the installation of the cameras, and UrtheCast has to prove it can successfully commercialize its offering. 

Overall, Space-as-a-Service platforms are likely to face some unusual risks and limitations. For instance, the orbital paths are fixed. Also, if there are technical glitches or hardware upgrades are required, it will likely be difficult and expensive to fix the service. 

Still, the idea that somewhere in the Heavens above us, a private company is pioneering a new kind of service offering, is an exciting one!

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