The Center for Data Innovation spoke with James Slifierz, co-founder and CEO of SkyWatch, a commercial satellite imagery company based in Waterloo, Canada that provides infrastructure to process satellite imagery. Slifierz discussed how researchers can use Earth observation data to address issues such as climate change and urban growth and explained how the company’s platform uses AI to process and analyze satellite imagery.
Morgan Stevens: What was your motivation for starting SkyWatch?
James Slifierz: To unleash the potential of space-borne data for the benefit of humanity. The best way to understand what’s happening on our planet is to look at it from space and, historically, space-borne data hasn’t been accessible for the larger market, outside of government and defense. We created SkyWatch to democratize this data, so everyone can leverage insights of space to improve life on Earth.
Stevens: What are the benefits of Earth observation (EO) data and how can businesses use it to optimize their operations?
Slifierz: A satellite is the fastest and most affordable way to collect data from any location on the planet in a short amount of time. Businesses who get the most out of Earth observation data are those that have a need to continuously collect data about locations of interest to them. For example, an agriculture technology (AgTech) company needs to monitor farmland. Insurance companies need to monitor natural disasters. Governments need to monitor areas of conflict. These are just a few examples of thousands of use cases.
For a business to really optimize its return on investment (ROI) on EO data, it should aim to minimize the cost of data acquisition. The lower the costs, the stronger the ROI. That’s where SkyWatch comes in.
Stevens: How is SkyWatch integrating artificial intelligence into its platform?
Slifierz: SkyWatch would not be able to continue to scale our business if we hadn’t embraced AI many years ago. In EO, AI can be a super useful tool in the processing and analysis of imagery. Historically, SkyWatch has leveraged it for image processing and we’ll be using more of it for analysis in the future.
For image processing, we’ve used AI for cloud detection, image quality scoring, geospatial corrections, and more. For analysis, AI will be used for object detection and semantic search.
Stevens: In the age of increased environmental consciousness, how does SkyWatch’s platform contribute to understanding and addressing issues like climate change, deforestation, and urban growth?
Slifierz: We believe we should be thankful to space technology for awakening that environmental consciousness in the 1970s, through images taken of our planet by the Apollo program, and eventually the Landsat program. It’s worth considering how little we would know about our changing climate if it were not for our collective investments in space technology.
With respect to climate change, deforestation, and urban growth, these are all changing aspects of our planet that are visible from space, and thus, observations that are accessible through SkyWatch.
In the case of climate change, Earth observation can be used to monitor temperature trends, greenhouse gas emissions, detect methane, and changes in sea levels and glaciers.
In the case of deforestation, Earth observation can provide a very clear picture of forest loss and in some instances, even identify illegal logging activities.
In the case of urban growth, because urban areas can be seen very distinctly in satellite imagery, tracking it over time is quite simple. What’s more interesting is using Earth observation to understand the environmental impact urban growth has had on its surrounding area. For example, you may see changes in various types of land cover (forest, water, agriculture, etc.), and correlate that with changes in water quality, wildlife populations, or heat islands.
Stevens: How do you see the role of satellite imagery evolving in different industries, such as agriculture, oil and gas, and insurance?
Slifierz: While the use cases are fairly well understood, penetration into these markets still remains relatively small, compared to government and defense markets, as the cost of adopting EO data is still perceived to be high. So the key question we ask ourselves everyday is, “How can we enable more people to realize the benefits of Earth observation?” For SkyWatch, that means focusing on accessibility and affordability.
So, to answer the question more pointedly, the role of satellite imagery will evolve from being a tool only available to those with big budgets to a tool affordable and accessible to all.