The evolution of the world’s most versatile digital globe – Part 3 of 4

In my first and second posts in this series, we touched on the initial obstacles to making a global imagery basemap – just getting enough imagery to cover the earth, hosting that giant bundle of data online, and fitting the pieces together to look right. Now we’ll focus on the next challenge: making the latest view of the earth available online as soon as possible.

This is not a trivial requirement. Most recently, DigitalGlobe was able to help first responders save lives in Nepal because we were able to image the sites most affected by the earthquake, then get that information to the people on the ground in the best position to help save lives. We were just a small link in a large chain of people who pitched in to help after the disaster, but using our unique capabilities, we were able to provide an unparalleled view to first responders.

Once a FirstLook event is active, images from the entire DigitalGlobe constellation are made available for response efforts.
Once a FirstLook event is active, images from the entire DigitalGlobe constellation are made available for response efforts.
Kalmochan_Temple_April27
This picture shows damage to the Kalmochan Temple in Kathmandu selected to show the status on April 27, 2015.

Why is that so special? Because we’ve all seen movies where satellites beam down real-time images to our heroes (or villains), it might be sad to learn that the technical reality is, well, more technical.

Summing up a few decades of space engineering in two sentences let me explain, or maybe drastically oversimplify most satellite imaging:

  • Our satellites are sophisticated digital cameras in a sun-synchronous orbit, meaning they follow the earth’s rotation to take pictures around 10:30 in the morning local time, all over the world. Later, when they fly over one of our antenna ground terminals, the data downloads to our systems where we automatically process it for optimal viewing and then post it online in DigitalGlobe Basemap. Whew…

Ten years ago, it was common for the picture-to-viewer process to take weeks, but we’ve invested heavily to build systems that do it without any manual effort. That makes it possible to have extremely rapid turnaround times that put imagery in the hands of those who need it most, when they need it most. Our record is 13 minutes from the click of the shutter at 478 miles up to the image displayed on a user’s screen. Thirteen minutes! Last week, my two-year-old daughter hid the remote control, and it took me at least that long to find it.

DigitalGlobe employs two different services to deliver our most current imagery: Basemap +Daily and FirstLook. +Daily posts new imagery all the time. While you were reading that last sentence, imagery of somewhere on the earth probably just got loaded online. As long as the image meets the cloud cover requirements and technical specifications, up it goes, and it’s available instantly to subscribers online. FirstLook is our event response service. Once we’ve identified an event that we plan to cover – say, a natural disaster or a large festival – we’ll post all new imagery that we collect alongside pre-event imagery in Basemap for context to help with the response and planning efforts. These services are some of the best examples of how DigitalGlobe fulfills its purpose of Seeing a better world™.

The next post in the series will wrap up on how we do things today, and give a hint of what we’ve got planned next for Basemap.

Casey McCullar is Director of Product Marketing at DigitalGlobe.