Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bye, Bye, Blackbridge

          By Brian Orlotti

The RapidEye constallation. Image c/o BlackBridge via EO Portal.
On July 15th, Lethbridge, AB. based BlackBridge Corp, owners of the RapidEye earth-imaging constellation of five satellites, was purchased by San Francisco, CA. based Planet Labs Inc. for an undisclosed amount. The deal comes amid a series of acquisitions throughout the earth-observation satellite industry in an attempt to meet increasing demand for Earth imagery.

The deal gives Planet Labs access to both BlackBridge's RapidEye satellite constellation as well as its large archive of earth imagery. The RapidEye satellites are larger and can observe larger swaths of Earth (albeit at lower resolution) than Planet Labs' existing micro and nanosatellites.

In a phone interview with BloombergBusiness, Planet Labs CEO Will Marshall stated that BlackBridge's archive will be essential in developing machine-learning software that can extract useful data from satellite images.

Prior to the Planet Labs' acquisition, and as outlined in the May 31st, 2014 post, "BlackBridge Secures $22 Million for New Satellite Constellation," the firm had been a rising star in the Canadian earth-imaging field because of its 2011 purchase of bankrupt German satellite firm RapidEye AG and its five satellite earth-imaging constellation.

The RapidEye constellation was built by Guildford, UK based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), under contract from Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), which designed the satellites. It was funded by the European Union (EU), the German State of Brandenburg and a banking consortium consisting of Commerzbank, Export Development Canada (EDC) and the KfW Banking Group. Each RapidEye satellite measures less than one cubic meter and weighs 150 kg. Combined, the five satellites can collect five million km² worth of imagery at a five metre resolution, daily.

RapidEye image of Alaska, USA, collected in September 11, 2012. Image c/o BlackBridge via EO Portal.

In May 2014, Blackbridge secured $22Mln CDN in funding from the Bank of Montreal and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to begin development of a new satellite constellation to be called RapidEye+. This new constellation would have comprised five satellites with both greater resolution (one metre as compared to five) and higher storage capacity than the original RapidEye satellites. The RapidEye+ constellation was to have been launched in 2019.

Blackbridge's acquisition comes less than a month after Vancouver, BC based UrtheCast Corp., announced its purchase of Deimos Imaging from Spanish energy utility Elecnor SA for €76.4Mln EUR ($107.4Mln CDN). In 2014, Google Inc.. acquired Skybox Imaging Inc. for $500Mln USD ($647Mln CDN)

The geospatial industry buying spree has gained momentum as demand for earth imagery from investors, the financial industry, governments, and non-governmental organizations surges. These various players utilize satellite imagery for everything from pollution monitoring to urban planning to investor due diligence.

Brian Orlotti.
Though it is unfortunate to see a Canadian success story like Blackbridge end with transfer of ownership to the US, the emergence of new Canadian players like UrtheCast and the vitality of the geospatial industry as a whole bode well for the future.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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