Pandemic fuels demand for satellite imagery

Space

SAN FRANCISCO – Demand is growing for satellite imagery to gauge the economic impact of the new coronavirus and to conduct remote monitoring of facilities and infrastructure.

Ursa Space Systems, a satellite data and analytics firm in Ithaca, New York, can see the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global oil inventories. Ursa offers customers weekly reports on 11,000 oil storage tanks observed with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites.

“Satellite imagery has been invaluable in tracking oil inventories outside the U.S. where public data isn’t available or timely,” Geoffrey Craig, Ursa global energy analyst, told SpaceNews. “We’ve noticed a pick-up from clients and prospects interested in Ursa’s oil storage product. Our China coverage, especially, has attracted attention.”

To further discern the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on economic activity, Ursa is monitoring a Nissan Motor Corp. plant in Japan and the Wuhan North railway station, the main freight train stop in the Chinese city where the virus was detected in 2019.

For the two locations, Ursa’s comparison of historical and recent SAR imagery showed “a significant decline in activity coinciding with the coronavirus period,” Craig said by email.

Another satellite data analytics firm, SpaceKnow of New York, is also seeing growing interest in its data, “especially for China,” said SpaceKnow co-founder Pavel Machalek.

SpaceKnow has monitored more than 6,000 factories in China for more than five years. In response to the new coronavirus, Spaceknow “continues to see deteriorating industrial output in China,” Machalek said by email.

In addition to monitoring economic impact, satellite imagery and analytics firms see growing interest in remote monitoring of facilities that have become harder to reach due to travel restrictions and government orders to remain at home.

SkyWatch, a Canadian company that created a software platform for satellite imagery, has seen an uptick in customer interest in facilities monitoring. Specifically, the firm has seen interest in remote monitoring by customers focused on energy, utilities, construction, renewable energies and infrastructure.

“A lot of the industries require someone to look at assets at a certain cadence for security or safety,” said Dexter Jagula, SkyWatch chief operating officer. “We’ve definitely seen an increase.”

Still, it’s hard to say whether the increase is related to COVID-19 or whether companies are simply looking for ways to save money by monitoring assets remotely, Jagula added.

Planet, the San Francisco-based Earth observation company also is fielding inquiries regarding remote monitoring.

“It’s early in this crisis and businesses are still mapping out solutions to challenges posed by COVID-19,” said a Planet spokesman. “That said, we have received inquiries asking to use satellite imagery to collect information about operations and activities in places where sending people might expose them to unnecessary risks … We believe satellite data collection may provide a safe, affordable alternative to other methods of information gathering, potentially making it a critical component to an organization’s business continuity plans.”

In addition, Planet “foresees customers using remote sensing data to monitor the economic impacts of COVID-19, and, in the future, tracking recovery and growth,” the spokesman added.

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