How Planet’s acquisition of Terra Bella helps Google Maps with advanced satellite imagery


Planet (formerly Planet Labs) has made a major move by acquiring satellite network startup Terra Bella (formerly Skybox Imaging) from Google for an undisclosed amount of money. The news comes as Planet also prepares for an 88-nanosat launch with Indian space agency ISRO. The acquisition was enthusiastically announced by Google, namely by its official Google Maps account on Twitter, indicating this will have major implications for the internet giant’s major mapping service.

But it shouldn’t be undersold just how significant the move is by Planet, acquiring another headline-grabbing startup with whom it once competed, from Google no less. Terra Bella is one of the few new space companies that has created a network of satellites, subbed SkySat. The move means Terra Bella’s SkySat data and its seven satellites will be incorporated into Planet’s own offerings and augment Planet’s 60-strong CubeSat constellation.

“From the start, Planet and Terra Bella have shared similar visions and approached aerospace technology from a like-minded position, and while our on-orbit assets and data are different, together we bring unique and valuable capabilities to users,” said Terra Bella Co-Founder John Fenwick said according to the announcement on Planet’s blog. “Planet and Terra Bella together enables the continuation of our mission and makes for an ever-stronger business.”

Terra Bella satellite specs (Terra Bella)

Planet already has a library of images going back to 2009, calling it one of the largest in the world. They offer monitoring and basemap services in addition to their traditional imagery product.

The announcement noted that “a number of Terra Bella employees will join Planet to continue their great work within our combined organization,” possibly sugarcoats the layoff of other employees. Google will enter into a contractual agreement to utilize the combined data, pointing to a strategic move by Google to move Terra Bella out-of-house as it were for the sake of better augmenting data with space startup darling Planet.

“When we thought about a company that shares Terra Bella’s passion and strengths in high-frequency satellite imaging, Planet was a natural home,” said Google VP of Product and Engineering Jen Fitzpatrick in a statement. “Terra Bella has accomplished a lot in the past two years—including the design and launch of five more satellites. We’re excited to see what’s ahead for Terra Bella, and look forward to being a long-term customer.”

Augmenting Google Maps

The official announcement was tweeted from a somewhat unlikely source, Google Maps’ official account. The benefits to Google’s mapping images should be abundantly clear, but also the addition of more satellite data will probably add more sophisticated layers of data to the Google Maps service itself.

The service has become more than just a navigator for people lost in a new neighborhood or on their way to a business meeting by foot. Google Maps added native integration with Uber and Lyft just last month, catching up with Uber itself and other services like Gett in Israel. They also brought a ‘crowd’ status to its iOS updates in January (long available on Android already) that will tell you how crowded a destination is.

Terra Bella boasts they “are building an entirely new class of imaging satellites,” with 90 cm resolution, the “first-ever” commercial HD video of Earth from a satellite, and addition of propulsion modules suitable for new-generation small satellites. They include high speed 480+ Mbit/s X-band and 1.1-meter video res at 30 fps.

This isn’t the first acquisition by Planet. They bought RapidEye along with its five-color imaging satellites back in 2015.

Those five satellites had collected over 6 billion square meters of 5-meter resolution satellite data in five bands of the electromagnetic spectrum (blue, green, red, red-edge, and infrared). That database’s integration with Planet gave it one of the largest satellite image libraries in the world outside of NASA. It’s possible it made little sense for Google to make it harder for the experts by retaining direct control over Terra Bella.

This removes steps from the process of integrating Planet’s data after the fact to Terra Bella’s. But the integration of the Terra Bella network — even if limited to a mere seven cube satellites — with Planet will enable the merger of data sets in line with new big data trends in satellites.

Image of Rotterdam (The Netherlands) and surroundings where different types of landscape elements can be seen (image Planet via MapQuest)

“Data fracking, fracking the layers. You pump something in you pull out more than you expect. It’s hacking the Matrix. You can use it for the good, you can use it for the bad,” Frank Salzgeber, head of the the European Space Association’s business incubation network (ESA BIC), described to Geektime on the sidelines of Slush in November. He explaining ESA satellites were collecting 500 different layers of data everyday, a service his network’s startups were getting in on.

He mentioned major examples in the ESA BIC network like the Swedish real-time forest-monitoring startup Code Company AB, navigating company Maporama MobileTech and fleet management startup Desert Express out of the Noordwijk incubator, Dutch crop-management startup Agribase, French company INNERSENSE, and European metro guide Citynavigators (Noordwijk).

“We see more and more [of these] startups coming in our incubation centers, and more and more investing in this area,” Salzgeber emphasized at the time. “Trust me, Facebook is Mickey Mouse against this stuff.”

Terra Bella pushes its own ability to ‘frack data’ in a manner of speaking by inferring environmental or economic changes by comparing images it takes at different times at the same locations. It gives examples such as anticipating supply changes at the port in Long Beach, California or provide HD video (maybe eventually in real-time) of disasters as they happen, like the eruption of Mount Ontake in Japan.

The big question, ‘Why should Google spin out a company when it could retain that information in-house?’ is best answered from the perspective of efficiency. Planet now gets to more seamlessly access information from Terra Labs and build a fully integrated network. Other startups providing real-time monitoring information from their own nanosats could be next in Planet’s apparent desire to eat up innovative imaging companies.

Google Maps used for real-time navigation in a car (guntsoophack yuktahnon / Contributor / Getty Images Israel)

It’s well-known Google leads in terms of real-time navigation with its acquisition of Israeli startup Waze, but if a provider like Planet can absorb more data it will become an indispensable service to the internet giant. Examples like the abovementioned data on truck fleets, more crowding data, or possible fire-averting detour recommendations based on real-time forest monitoring satellites, demonstrate the possible direction of services like Maps in the future.

With the acquisition, Planet has absorbed its one-time major startup competitor. If its ISRO launch goes as planned later this February, there is a very real possibility it will announce a new round of funding to make more buyouts.



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