The adoption of Earth Observation satellite technologies is accelerating.
More and more companies and institutions are using satellite imagery to better understand the world and more closely observe relevant changes.
However, those actors are also coming to the realization that optical satellite systems have their limitations.
The biggest barriers to the use of satellite imagery are cloud cover and limited usability of the data at night—of course, earthquakes or floods can happen at any time, regardless of the weather or time of the day.
Fortunately, optical images are not the only way to visualize the earth’s surface from a satellite. Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR, is a completely different way of generating a picture, actively ‘illuminating’ the ground rather than utilizing the light from the sun (as with optical images).
SAR satellites beam radar waves to the surface of the earth and map the reflected signal.
The system can penetrate clouds, see beneath tree canopies, and work in all weather conditions.
According to the market report from Mordor Intelligence, the Global SAR Market was valued at $3,3 billion in 2020, and it is expected to reach $6,5 billion by 2026—representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.6% during the period of 2021–2026.
The 11th Edition of NSR’s Satellite-Based Earth Observation reports that the sale of SAR data and derived products is going to see significant growth in annual global revenues, from $700M in 2018 to over $1.7B by 2028.
Imagery sales and information products are predicted to dominate, responsible for 63% of SAR revenues in this timeframe.
Very-high-resolution imagery (<0.5m) has become the fastest developing market, while high-resolution (0.5-1m) occupies the biggest part of the current market.
However, not all the SAR satellites are able to follow this wave of growth.
According to NSR’s report, medium resolution (1-5m) market share began to decrease after 2017.
Low resolution, meanwhile, presents limited commercial value.
It seems that the providers of low-resolution SAR data will need to adapt as high-resolution commercial data brings much more value to clients.
The largest demand for SAR satellite images comes from the Military and Defense Sector.
The biggest individual buyer of SAR satellite image also comes from the Military and Defense Sector: the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
Besides the Military and Defense Sector, the Financial and Insurance Sectors are also rapidly growing markets, with a CAGR of 14%.
Traditionally, SAR satellite constellations are based on government programs building large, heavy, and costly satellite units and sensors, offering fairly low revisit rates and requiring significant investment—such as the Sentinel-1 mission.
The history and development of SAR
SAR is not a new technology; it started in the US nearly 70 years ago. However, the application of SAR has only become popular over the past decade.
1951–2000: Limited technology in Defense sector
Radar has a history stretching back nearly 100 years.
Imaging radar, meanwhile, attempts to form an image of such an object.
In 1960, the first SAR experiment was successfully completed in Washington, and in 1978, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched the first SAR satellite (SEASAT-1).
However, from 1990 to 2000, SAR technology started to come out from the laboratory, and Europe, Canada, Russia, Japan, and many other countries started to build SAR satellites.
1995–2013: Rapid development of technology and the beginning of commercial applications
For years, SAR technology has been limited to military and research domains, but the first country to commercialize SAR satellite imagery was Canada.
The first sub-meter radar imagery for commercial applications was launched in 2007.
While the commercialization of SAR satellites developed slowly, a breakthrough occurred in 2014, when the European Space Agency launched the first of its Sentinel-1 satellites, as the first part of the Copernicus satellite constellation.
At the same time, the ESA Technology Transfer and Business Incubation Office initiated its ESA Business Incubation Centres (ESA BICs) to turn space-connected business ideas into startups.
With the policy of free data and support, many SAR startups grew rapidly in this period, especially those using InSAR technology.
Sentinel-1’s freely available 10m imagery, with its 6–12-day revisit, proved quite satisfactory for the existing ecosystem of SAR data users.
Around 2015, the new era of the space sector started to emerge with the development of microsatellite constellations.
Traditionally, the building costs of large satellites could easily reach hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure component stability.
In 2014, ICEYE was founded in Aalto University, Finland, and in 2018, the 70kg ICEYE-X1 was launched as the first satellite under 100 kg to carry a SAR sensor—as well as the first Finnish commercial satellite.
In the US, the SAR startup Capella Space was founded in 2016.
SAR has been used in a wide range of applications, from studying Antarctic icebergs and detecting changes in habitat, to mapping the effects of natural or human disturbance.
On August 5th, 2020, a large explosion occurred in the Port of Beirut, equivalent to 100 tons of TNT.
2. Maritime and coastal zone monitoring:
On July 25th, 2020, a ship ran aground south of Mauritius, and spilled at least 1,000 tons of oil into the Indian Ocean.
3. Land monitoring:
A ground deformation analysis was conducted for approximately three years (July 2018 to June 2021) in Guatemala City and its suburbs by SAR startupSynspective.
4. Agriculture and vegetation:
In Peru, canopy formation, density, and the growth rate of asparagus crops have been monitored by Sentinel-1 satellite since 2019.
There are two groups of key players in the SAR satellite industry: Governments and startups. However, they are playing different games.
Government groups tend to focus on large satellites.
The United States, the traditional top player in the aerospace industry, had a big advantage in SAR technology—until European players joined the game.
Since Sentinel-1B stopped working at the end of 2021, faith in large satellites has also been lost to an extent. Pressure is also coming from the small satellite startups—ICEYE from Finland and Capella Space from the US are becoming the main players in this game.
Compared to the wide range of uses for optical data, there are still only a few applications of SAR data in the commercial space.
For the industry, emergency response offers big opportunities for new startups.
At the same time, the international political atmosphere hasn’t been this tense for a long time.
However, the opportunities for new entrants in the space are decreasing.
- Smaller and lighter: The R&D and investment costs of large and medium-sized satellites are prohibitive for a startup. Therefore, the only opportunities left for startups are small satellites (under 200kg).
- Constellations: Every startup has a plan to build a large satellite constellation. But the one who makes it will be the final winner. Talk is cheap; show me the satellite!
- Easier analysis, simpler processing: Analysis of SAR data requires a lot of time, expertise, and computational tools. Industrial image organizing and processing software was originally developed for the human eye—for optical not radar—leaving SAR lagging behind and more expensive. Making analysis easier and simplifying the processing chain will attract more students and players to the SAR industry.
- From upstream to downstream: Increasingly, satellite manufacturers hope to do more in downstream applications—and vice versa.
“A picture is worth a thousand words”, and it is certainly the case for satellite data.
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