08:06
TED2014

Will Marshall: Tiny satellites show us the Earth as it changes in near-real-time

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Satellite imaging has revolutionized our knowledge of the Earth, with detailed images of nearly every street corner readily available online. But Planet Labs' Will Marshall says we can do better and go faster -- by getting smaller. He introduces his tiny satellites -- no bigger than 10 by 10 by 30 centimeters -- that, when launched in a cluster, provide high-res images of the entire planet, updated daily.

- Space scientist
At Planet Labs, Will Marshall is helping share near-real-time images of our planet, from a constellation of earth-observing satellites. Full bio

The Earth needs no introduction.
00:12
It needs no introduction in part
because the Apollo 17 astronauts,
00:15
when they were hurtling
around the moon in 1972,
00:20
took this iconic image.
00:23
It galvanized a whole
generation of human beings
00:27
to realize that we're on
Spaceship Earth,
00:30
fragile and finite as it is,
00:33
and that we need
to take care of it.
00:35
But while this picture
is beautiful, it's static,
00:37
and the Earth is constantly changing.
00:40
It's changing on days' time
scales with human activity.
00:43
And the satellite imagery we
have of it today is old.
00:46
Typically, years old.
00:49
And that's important because
you can't fix what you can't see.
00:52
What we'd ideally want is images
of the whole planet every day.
00:56
So, what's standing in our way?
01:01
What's the problem?
01:03
This is the problem:
01:05
Satellites are big, expensive
and they're slow.
01:07
This one weighs three tons.
01:12
It's six meters tall, four meters wide.
01:14
It took up the entire fairing
of a rocket just to launch it.
01:17
One satellite, one rocket.
01:20
It cost 855 million dollars.
01:22
Satellites like these have
done an amazing job
01:25
at helping us to understand our planet.
01:27
But if we want to understand
it much more regularly,
01:30
we need lots of satellites,
01:34
and this model isn't scalable.
01:36
So me and my friends,
we started Planet Labs
01:38
to make satellites ultra-compact
01:40
and small and highly capable.
01:42
I'm going to show you what
our satellite looks like:
01:44
This is our satellite.
01:52
This is not a scale model,
01:54
this is the real size.
01:56
It's 10 by 10 by 30 centimeters,
01:58
it weighs four kilograms,
02:00
and we've stuffed the latest
and greatest electronics
02:03
and sensor systems into
this little package
02:05
so that even though this is really small,
02:07
this can take pictures 10 times the
resolution of the big satellite here,
02:09
even though it weighs one
thousandth of the mass.
02:14
And we call this satellite
"Dove" — Thank you.
02:19
(Applause)
02:23
We call this satellite "Dove,"
02:25
and we call it "Dove" because
satellites are typically named
02:27
after birds, but normally birds of prey:
02:30
like Eagle, Hawk, Swoop,
Kill, I don't know,
02:32
Kestrel, these sort of things.
02:35
But ours have a
humanitarian mission,
02:37
so we wanted to call them Doves.
02:39
And we haven't just
built them, though.
02:41
We've launched them.
02:43
And not just one, but many.
02:44
It all started in our garage.
02:50
Yes, we built our first satellite
prototype in our garage.
02:52
Now, this is pretty normal for a
Silicon Valley company that we are,
02:55
but we believe it's the first time
for a space company.
02:58
And that's not the only trick
we learned from Silicon Valley.
03:01
We rapidly prototype our satellites.
03:05
We use "release early,
release often" on our software.
03:08
And we take a different
risk approach.
03:11
We take them outside and test them.
03:13
We even put satellites in space
just to test the satellites,
03:15
and we've learned to manufacture
our satellites at scale.
03:18
We've used modern production techniques
03:21
so we can build large numbers of them,
03:23
I think for the first time.
03:25
We call it agile aerospace,
03:28
and that's what's enabled us to put
so much capability into this little box.
03:31
Now, what has bonded
our team over the years
03:36
is the idea of democratizing
access to satellite information.
03:41
In fact, the founders of our
company, Chris, Robbie and I,
03:46
we met over 15 years ago
at the United Nations
03:49
when they were hosting a conference
about exactly that question:
03:51
How do you use satellites
to help humanity?
03:54
How do you use satellites to help
people in developing countries
03:56
or with climate change?
03:57
And this is what has bonded us.
03:59
Our entire team is passionate about
using satellites to help humanity.
04:02
You could say
we're space geeks,
04:06
but not only do we care
about what's up there,
04:08
we care about what's down here, too.
04:11
I'm going to show you a video
04:13
from just four weeks ago
of two of our satellites
04:15
being launched from the
International Space Station.
04:17
This is not an animation,
04:20
this is a video taken by the astronaut
looking out of the window.
04:22
It gives you a bit of a sense of
scale of our two satellites.
04:25
It's like some of the
smallest satellites ever
04:28
are being launched from
the biggest satellite ever.
04:30
And right at the end, the
solar array glints in the sun.
04:33
It's really cool. Wait for it.
04:35
Boom! Yeah. It's the money shot.
04:38
(Laughter)
04:41
So we didn't just launch
two of them like this,
04:43
we launched 28 of them.
04:46
It's the largest constellation of
Earth-imaging satellites in human history,
04:48
and it's going to provide a
completely radical new data set
04:52
about our changing planet.
04:55
But that's just the beginning.
04:57
You see, we're going to launch
more than 100 of these satellites
04:59
like these over the
course of the next year.
05:02
It's going to be the largest constellation
of satellites in human history.
05:05
And this is what it's going to do:
05:08
Acting in a single-orbit plane that
stays fixed with respect to the sun,
05:10
the Earth rotates underneath.
05:13
They're all cameras pointed down,
05:15
and they slowly scan across as
the Earth rotates underneath.
05:17
The Earth rotates every 24 hours,
05:20
so we scan every point on the
planet every 24 hours.
05:22
It's a line scanner for the planet.
05:25
We don't take a picture of
anywhere on the planet every day,
05:28
we take a picture of every single
place on the planet every day.
05:31
Even though we launched these
just a couple of weeks ago,
05:34
we've already got some initial
imagery from the satellites
05:37
and I'm going to show it
publicly for the first time right now.
05:40
This is the very first picture
taken by our satellite.
05:43
It happened to be over
UC-Davis' campus
05:46
in California when we
turned the camera on.
05:48
But what's even cooler is when
05:50
we compare it to the previous
latest image of that area,
05:52
which was taken many months ago.
05:55
And the image on the left
is from our satellite,
05:57
and we see buildings are being built.
06:00
The general point is that we will be able
to track urban growth as it happens
06:02
around the whole world
in all cities, every day.
06:06
Water as well.
06:10
Thank you.
06:11
(Applause)
06:13
We'll be able to see
the extent of all water bodies
06:14
around the whole world every day
and help water security.
06:17
From water security
to food security.
06:20
We'll see crops as they
grow in all the fields
06:22
in every farmer's field around
the planet every day.
06:25
and help them to improve crop yield.
06:28
This is a beautiful image that was taken
06:31
just a few hours ago when the
satellite was flying over Argentina.
06:33
The general point is
06:37
there are probably hundreds and
thousands of applications of this data,
06:39
I've mentioned a few, but there's others:
06:42
deforestation, the ice caps melting.
06:44
We can track all of these things,
every tree on the planet every day.
06:46
If you took the difference between
today's image and yesterday's image,
06:49
you'd see much of the world news —
you'd see floods and fires and earthquakes.
06:52
And we have decided, therefore, that the
best thing that we could do with our data
06:56
is to ensure universal access to it.
07:00
We want to ensure everyone can see it.
07:03
Thank you. (Applause)
07:05
We want to empower NGOs and
companies and scientists and journalists
07:08
to be able to answer the questions
that they have about the planet.
07:12
We want to enable the developer community
to run their apps on our data.
07:16
In short, we want to democratize access
to information about our planet.
07:21
Which brings me back to this.
07:25
You see, this will be an entirely
new global data set.
07:28
And we believe that together,
07:32
we can help to take care
of our Spaceship Earth.
07:34
And what I would like to leave
you with is the following question:
07:39
If you had access to imagery of the
whole planet every single day,
07:42
what would you do with that data?
07:47
What problems would you solve?
07:48
What exploration would you do?
07:50
Well, I invite you to come
and explore with us.
07:52
Thank you very much.
07:54
(Applause)
07:56

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About the Speaker:

Will Marshall - Space scientist
At Planet Labs, Will Marshall is helping share near-real-time images of our planet, from a constellation of earth-observing satellites.

Why you should listen

In his Twitter bio, William Marshall calls himself a "quantum physicist cum space scientist in search of world peace and harmony." And when you hear about his job, it falls into place: He and his cofounders at Planet Labs want to show the earth what it looks like, in almost real time, via a new network of compact, capable satellites. They hope that up-to-date images will inform future humanitarian and commercial projects all over our planet and will help to enable people to make the best decisions for earth.

Before cofounding Planet Labs, Marshall was a scientist at NASA/USRA, where he helped to formulate the Small Spacecraft Office at NASA Ames Research Center. He worked on lunar orbiter mission LADEE, lunar impactor mission LCROSS and the groundbreaking PhoneSat project, building satellites out of consumer parts.

More profile about the speaker
Will Marshall | Speaker | TED.com