Google’s maybe getting into space? This is an interesting TechCrunch article about the possible acquisition of satellite imagery company SkyBox by advertising aggregator Google. Theoretically, SkyBox is Google’s only target, but TechCrunch does float Planet Labs and RapidEye as possible targets, too. Except, SkyBox is the ONLY satellite company offering real-time streaming of High Definition video. Which might be one of the reasons why Google might want to buy SkyBox.
It seems to me, though, there should be some serious questions about why Google is buying an imagery company like SkyBox. As far as we know, Google has been fairly satisfied with using imagery from satellite operators like DigitalGlobe. So why think about buying an actual satellite imagery operator like SkyBox (aside from the cool factor)? What would this do for Google that’s not happening right now?
What instantly leaps to mind is maybe Google is perhaps not getting the best imagery its money can buy. US-based companies like DigitalGlobe are only allowed to sell their highest resolution imagery to US government customers. They can’t, under current laws, sell it to anyone else. I am not a lawyer, but what can you do with the imagery if you are the owner of the imagery? And, what if you’re literally just giving it away on a platform such as Google Maps or Google Earth? I don’t think lawmakers ever foresaw a multi-billion-dollar company giving away imagery in a networked world. In some ways, Google is using better imagery from airplanes, too, and they’re not prevented from using those for their maps.
So perhaps Google is tired of not getting the best (although, arguably, SkyBox’s camera resolution won’t supply the 25 centimeter resolution that DigitalGlobe’s birds can). But if Google supplies the money, SkyBox can up this part of the game, eventually. Right now they’re operating only one satellite, with a second hopefully on the books for them in the next few months. Of course, this is not really a complete answer to why Google might want to buy SkyBox.
There’s the HD video portion that makes SkyBox unique. What on Earth could Google do with that information? Sure, some of the video might be useful for a Google Doodle, but I bet there’s more on their minds for SkyBox. Theoretically, the satellite’s video camera might be able to give real-time visual information of traffic. It could also provide information about weather. It could be used to tie in to a Google Glass type of device or your cell phone. Frighteningly, it could also be used to track a particular device with great accuracy (of course, they’re kind of doing that already). More useful applications would be for helping fire-fighters determine “hot-spots” real-time–something that can’t really be done with a DigitalGlobe-type constellation.
But it would all only be useful if SkyBox can get more satellites in orbit than the single satellite they are using right now. Then things can get really interesting. If there was a full constellation, Google could accomplish a “sideways” move. Think about the projects they’ve worked on in the past: Project Loon, Google Fiber, and their activities in the spectrum auctions. Google has done a lot to promote internet communications. It would make sense to put a secondary or tertiary communications payload on these satellites. Payloads dedicated to supplying internet service, that are able to interlink with other satellites. Admittedly, that gets more complicated than just supplying imagery to the world.
Such a system, if used, might be a way for Google to skirt country boundaries and laws. Unless there was a requirement for a “government monitoring device” to be installed in a ground station, Google would be able to give the world internet access. The way to get around the ground station bottleneck might be just to have devices generally available that can talk back and forth to the satellites from the ground (kind of like Iridium, but with less government sponsorship and smaller phones, perhaps). Or perhaps use a converted barge as a floating ground station in international waters. Of course, this is all conjecture, but it’s fun to do.
Does all of this mean Google gets my trust back? Well, let’s see: this basically increases surveillance ability and Google has no obligation to transparency. They still, somehow, get ads through to me with no context, except through words misinterpreted by their fairly lame algorithm. They still feel obligated to share information with the government without too much of a fight. So, nope. Watch the skies, then, and smile–you’re on Google Kamera.