How many drones would it take to have constant surveillance of the whole Earth?
I revisit a Quora answer I made in 2013, and find some interesting things about the streaming video camera a company installed on the ISS
In 2013, I answered my first Quora question: “How many drones would it take to have constant surveillance of the whole Earth?” At the time I was but a 25-year old just starting to pursue a business in building drones. It’s been 7 years since, and both the drone industry and my own career has moved on, ironically in the direction of earth monitoring with satellites. What’s changed since then? I revisit this question
In my answer back in 2013, I’d decided that I wasn’t even going to address the math of trying to calculate how many drones would be needed to cover the whole earth. The logistics of refuelling such a fleet would have been impractical. I’d rather focus on the more realistic prospect of real-time earth monitoring with satellites. My answer was simply:
The UrtheCast project The Earth Video Camera (pronounced “earthcast”) is trying to install an HD streaming camera on the ISS. This would be a step in the direction of having constant surveillance of the whole Earth: it is conceivable that in the near future there may be many similar public access satellites in low-earth-orbit which could provide unprecedented coverage of the Earth. With satellites the issue of fly time and refuelling is a completely different issue to refuelling UAVs, and with this upcoming era of commercial spaceflight, for this purpose at least, satellites may be a more economical solution.
Bandwidth is an interesting question, it’s been covered by another answer, so I won’t go into the details of calculations, but consider this: we’re not going to be interested in every single patch of the earth at once, even if thousands of viewers were to request video streams, there’ll be vast barren lands that people aren’t going to watch. Additionally with the advances of computer vision, a lot of the processing can be done on-board the satellite, for example: perhaps we wanted to use the satellite to check on traffic and traffic accidents? The satellite can process the video to recognise vehicles on roads, and only send back the information we want.
Unfortunately the utility of satellites for surveillance is always going to be limited by the weather, and knee-jerk reactions to privacy issues.
What’s changed since then?
UrtheCast is a Canadian company founded around 2010. In 2013 around the time I’d answered the question, they had announced that they were installing a streaming camera on the ISS. The installation happened by spacewalk in December, and immediately reported issues with the hardware.
I didn’t think much more about UrtheCast after writing the answer, and I didn’t hear much more about UrtheCast in the news, even as my career turned to satellite data processing. But as I revisit my old Quora answers now, diving into it reveals an interesting story.
I dug up UrtheCast’s 2016 investor report for more details (emphasis mine)
… UrtheCast also announced that the commissioning of the HRC would be delayed by several months due to technical issues with the bi-axial pointing platform ... During on-orbit testing of the HRC and the BPP it was discovered that the BPP was experiencing difficulties achieving the pointing control precision needed for the HRC to meet image quality specifications. …
In 2014, the Company filed a Proof of Loss claim with its insurers under its insurance policy for revenue interruption due to the delay in commissioning of the HRC. UrtheCast filed an initial claim of $7.75 million under the policy ... In addition, in December 2015 UrtheCast filed a partial loss claim of $5.2 million on its in-orbit asset coverage and a claim of $2.1 million for recovery of costs related to corrective actions by the Company to resolve the technical issues…
… By Q1 2016, both HRC and MRC achieved Full Operational Capability (“FOC”).
So it seems like technical challenges in not the camera itself, but the motorized platform that rotates the camera to point at a single spot on earth had caused multi-year delays (otherwise the camera view would be flying over the earth surface at several hundred km per second as the ISS orbited, had it been affixed solidly), which apparently UrtheCast had insured itself against, and so received multiple millions of dollars from insurers to help offset the development costs.
There will always be technical issues to be solved, show me a single technical project that went off without a hitch. But the kicker comes next in the report (emphasis mine, excerpt also from the 2016 report)
… the Company announced that Energia had advised UrtheCast it would be terminating the existing agreement, … The Company does not expect that a new commercial arrangement can be reached with Energia and as a result, the Company is seeking to monetize these assets through alternative means, including licensing arrangements or an asset sale …
So a mere months after achieving full operational capability, Energia, the Russian space company that develops and maintains the Russian parts of the ISS, terminates the agreement. Exactly why is not explained, it could be fallout from the engineering challenges, it could be political, it could be a combination, not much is reported in the news about this move, and seems to have largely slipped under the radar, I could only find one news article that doesn’t go into much more detail than the annual report.
Whatever the reason, a 2013 Q&A session with Quartz is a spectre of the past that may haunt them a little, as during the interview, the company president explained why they weren’t launching a satellite and were attaching a camera to the ISS, and why there wouldn’t be any political complications. Two things that proved not to have turned out the way they expected.
Q: Why not go to another satellite company?
SL: Three things. One is the cost, certainly. To put up any kind of commercially appropriate satellite [would cost] in the several hundred million dollar range. Second, no one has video of earth from space. Third, most satellite cameras are constrained by how much electricity they have available. Because our camera is on the ISS with people living up there, we can leave our cameras on all the time, collect this massive amount of data and stream that over the web.
Q: What about political complications? I imagine if United Nations wants video of what’s going on in Syria right now, Russia might not appreciate it.
SL: Space itself is well-governed and well-regulated. Because we’re a Canadian company, we fall under the Canadian Remote Sensing Act. We have to be licensed in Canada and governed under this act. There things we can do and things we can’t do, people we can sell data to and people we can’t. The UN has its own set of protocols and guidelines about what is appropriate in space. “Open skies” is the general theme of it.
But it seems that UrtheCast didn’t put all their eggs in one basket, with acquisitions and partnerships leaving UrtheCast todaywith multiple other imaging satellites and data sources. It seems that UrtheCast has not only gotten over their setback with Energia, but also their 2013 reticence to deal with satellites and satellite companies.
Today, UrtheCast have to compete with not only government agency run earth observation satellites like NASA’s Landsat satellites and ESA’s Sentinel 2 satellites, which provide their data for free owing to their tax-payer funding, but several other satellite companies, including industry giant Airbus, and several other companies who have gone through a series of mergers and acquisitions in the last 7 years: Planetlabs gobbling up former competitor RapidEye/BlackBridge, and DigitalGlobe being acquired by Maxar. Today there are tens of earth imaging satellites in space, and that number will continue to grow as companies seek to provide valuable information for a growing number of applications made possible by improvements in cloud computing and AI.
What’s interesting is, as of 2018, the camera appears to be still attached to the outside of the space station. I was able to locate an image of it in helmet cam video from an EVA in August 2018. So the 2013 camera that started my writing career on Quora, today hangs off the side of the ISS as a vestigial limb as an awkward reminder of the fickleness of international business and politics despite engineering achievements.