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Collaboration Explores Humanitarian Satellite Applications

Microsatellites before launch

Microsatellite nodes in lab before launch (NASA)

28 April 2016. A start-up satellite imaging provider and agency of the United Nations are partnering on new ways to use satellite imaging to further the UN’s humanitarian, peace-keeping, and climate change mitigation missions. Financial terms between BlackSky Global LLC in Seattle and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, or Unitar, were not disclosed.

BlackSky Global, founded in 2013 and that began operations in June 2015, is offering high-resolution satellite imaging on a fee-for-image model, which the company says will deliver images faster and at a fraction of the cost of current providers. The company plans to launch 6 satellites this year, with its full fleet of 60 satellites in orbit by 2019, which will enable BlackSky to provide a 30-square kilometer image for less than $100, about one-tenth of the current industry average, in 2 hours or less.

In their agreement, BlackSky and Unitar will jointly explore and develop new applications for satellite imagery that support the UN’s work in humanitarian relief and sustainable development. A division of Unitar known as Unosat already provides services with geographic information systems and satellite imagery for UN agencies and member states, as well as other international agencies and non-government organizations.

Unitar and Unosat are particularly interested in BlackSky’s professed ability to deliver images with a resolution of 1 square meter and fast turn-around. “The combination of detailed 1 meter resolution imagery with frequent revisit times and near real-time delivery,” says Unosat manager Einar Bjorgo in a Unitar statement, “will open new applications areas and further strengthen existing services we provide to the UN family and developing countries.”

Unitar and BlackSky plan to explore applications for the company’s satellite services to support the UN’s work in humanitarian relief and early recovery, peace-keeping missions, climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, cultural heritage protection, environmental monitoring, and sustainable development.

To compete with current providers of high-resolution satellite images, BlackSky plans to launch a fleet of microsatellites, mainly in mid-latitudes, that provide frequent revisiting rates over 95 percent of the world’s population. Those satellites will provide still images and 1-frame-per-second video, supported by a software program for customers to request and receive images via the Internet.

The company expects to launch its first 6 satellites by the end of 2016, with commercial services starting in 2017. BlackSky is an independent subsidiary of Spaceflight Industries. The company says it raised $28.5 in financing over the past 2 years, and has 20 employees.

Following is an example of Unosat images currently provided, in this case showing damage from the recent earthquake in Ecuador.

Ecuador earthquake damage report

Satellite-detected damaged structures in Chone area in Manabi Province, Ecuador, located about 175 km south west of the 16 April 2016 Muisne earthquake main shock epicenter. Click on image for full-size display. (Unosat)

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