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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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