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Uncrewed Antares Rocket Explodes Upon Launch

Dramatic explosion shows that the dangers of space flight are very real.

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Gaspesie – Fall Colours

I just got back from a week in the Gaspésie region of Quebec. My lovely wife is from a village in the north east so I have the good fortune of being an “adopted son” there.

For those who may not know, Gaspésie is a large peninsula in Eastern Quebec jutting out into the St Lawrence. The whole area is dramatically dominated by cliffs hills and mountains, criss-crossed with rivers and valleys, and bordered by the sea. The name derives from the local Mi’kmaq population’s words for “Lands End”.

The Peninsula has a long history of human settlements. There is evidence of thousands of years of native inhabitants, and the first Europeans arrived in the 1500s. By the early 1900s the area was well known for its great cod fisheries, timber, and abundant salmon rivers.

I spent this Thanksgiving weekend enjoying the fine sunny days and amazing autumn foliage. At this time of year the busy tourist season is winding down. The weather is often great although trending colder. It is a good time to see lots of minke, fin, blue and humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises, northern gannets, porcupines, bears, beavers, foxes, and moose.

Humpback Whales

Whales are plentiful and easy to observe

Kayak or swim with seals

Kayak or swim with seals

Cliff-side views of the sea are everywhere

Fishing is a major industry in the Peninsula

Near our place is a valley located in the boundaries of the Forillon National Park, which bisects the tip of the Peninsula. Within the sheltered valley is a fantastic trail of about 10k that is great for a walk, bike ride or jog. It’s surrounded by steep hills with beautiful fall colours, has a peaceful river winding through it, and is an easy spot to see lots of wildlife.

La Vallee, near L Anse-au-Griffon. Great jogging trail.

La Vallee from the lookout near the north entrance 

Porcupine in Forillon National Park. These prickly things don’t like to hurry and you don’t like to hurry them!

Black Bear foraging for berries

On Saturday we took a new train service offered by Via Rail, called L’Amiral. This is a first-class tourist train that runs between the region’s main town, Gaspé, and the popular tourist village of Percé, which is home to the famous Percé Rock which juts out of the sea in spectacular fasion. The tracks run right along the seaside and there were some great views. The service is offered to the large cruise ships that visit the area and seems like a good way to let short-time visitors see the sights.

Percé is also the location of Bonaventure Island, where the largest colony of Northern Gannets in the world is located. Bonaventure is now a Quebec Provincial Park but used to be the home island of a large Channel Islands fishing empire which managed the cod fisheries in the area.

Taking the tourist train to Perce

Perce Rock

Perce Rock

Northern Gannets on Bonventure Island

Northern Gannets on Bonaventure Island

I love the Gaspésie Peninsula very much and encourage anyone to visit for its striking natural beauty and history. If you do come up try to drive up the 132 Highway which is one of the most beautiful coastal roads in the world (according to Michelin Green Guide and National Geographic).

Leave yourself lots of time to stop and take pictures!

The Planetary Society Celebrates Canada’s Achievements in Space

The Planetary Society celebrates Canada’s achievements in space exploration.

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IAC 2014: UrtheCast is #DisruptiveTech

Earlier this week I visited UrtheCast’s booth in the International Astronautical Congress 2014 exhibit hall. The Vancouver-based company is developing a NewSpace technology that could disrupt any number of Earth-based industries.

I’ve previously blogged on their offering – it is a unique space-based data and software platform which is the forerunner of what I expect to become a space-as-a-service industry sector. I had a great conversation with their Director of Technology Dan Lopez at their booth at IAC and I wanted to further elaborate my thoughts on this technology and what UrtheCast may do with it.

UrtheCast and NanoRacks partnership announcement

UrtheCast and NanoRacks partnership announcement at IAC 2014

Business Model and Service Offering

Dan explained how their business model works. As the ISS passes over the earth their twin cameras pick up and download large amounts of HD video and photos. I asked if these were big data levels of content and Dan called them “massive data”.

This data is then stored (presumably in an Amazon Web Services cloud) and made available via a RESTFUL  programming API (in non tech-speak this is simply an easy way to allow developers to interact with a software system).

Anyone can consume this data, via a pay-for-use model. A customer can contact UrtheCast and request special data sets. For various fees UrtheCast could provide value-added offerings around the data packages, or prioritize the camera direction and data gathering.

The UrtheCast offering is still in software alpha and therefore subject to extensive NDAs and feature changes. I haven’t had a chance to play with the API yet so what I’m describing here is only my conjecture based purely on conversations, news articles, and press releases.

Opportunities

When you offer a new software service and seek investment you try to have a “big moat” which is a competitive differentiator that competitors would be hard pressed to overcome. UrtheCast has the biggest moat imaginable – literally the gulf of space between the Earth’s surface and their RSC Energia-installed cameras on the International Space Station.

That big moat protects them while they pursue the business opportunities their technology offers them.

After thinking over what I heard, and reviewing my previous post, here are some  additional  opportunities I can forsee:

  1. Geospatial search engine. Depending on how they invest this could one day be a competitor / of interest to Google, Apple or Microsoft since they have realtime access to geospatial data that can be used to power search engines and mobile applications. The proof of this opportunity is that Google is VERY interested in space and has just acquired satellite imaging rival Skybox Imaging.
  2. Space-based observation platform for scientific or commercial purposes. Right now they point down at Earth since that is the tremendous market opportunity. However, in partnership with satellite providers such as NanoRacks they could presumably launch a camera network that could observe the moon, Mars, and/or the asteroid belt. This could provide market opportunities for them to lease data to scientific organizations, governments, or even private companies which are now spreading out into suborbital and eventually orbital space. If UrtheCast has proven their model and has the capacity to manage space-based observation platforms via a data and software service then they would be a great option for budding NewSpace companies such as those planning to mine the asteroids. Remember that in the Gold Rushes it was the service providers that made all the money, not the miners 🙂
  3. Mashups and Valued Added Resellers (VARs): Dan clarified that you can do more than just take data out – you can inject your own data into UrtheCast data sets. So, you could take a data set of shipping traffic that is made available from some other provider and add that to visual overlays of Atlantic or Mediterannean from UrtheCast. That enriched traffic data would provide value to customers in the shipping industry. Or a city’s urban planners could leverage the service to facilitate development and environmental planning, or emergency services. Partner companies who build offerings on top of UrtheCast’s service would provide a regular and lucrative revenue stream.

Challenges

UrtheCast’s offering might face the following challenges:

  1. Eventually their technological moat can be crossed as cheaper launching costs allow competitors to create the same capabilities. This seems far away but they can’t count on that and have to use their early mover advantage to best effect.
  2. If their platform is used for sensitive purposes then enormous pressure is on for them to maintain a high level of uptime. Given they may not know who/what their customers are doing with their data and what applications are in use they will have to be very diligent about developing and maintaining their public APIs. This is a challenge any first tier SaaS provider has to deal with.
  3. Maintenance and obsolesence: The cameras they rely on are hard to install  and subject to the incredibly harsh conditions of outer space. Repairs are difficult and expensive. As technology ages it will require continued investment to update and/or replace their offerings. Of course whatever data they bring back to Earth is stored permanently and can therefore be massaged, repackaged, and distributed at will.

Anyway those are my thoughts upon seeing them at the IAC conference and I am more convinced than ever that UrtheCast has a disruptive technology on its hands.

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