Urthecast is due to begin beaming the view from the ISS by autumn 2013 — the equipment will be finished by the summer, then shipped to Russia and sent to the space station via two Soyuz rockets. Once there, the Russian space agency will install it beneath the ISS and downlink the data to Earth, where it will be published.
Company CEO Scott Larson says its two cameras (one for stills and one for video) are so powerful, they will be able to pick up anything that’s around five meters in size — “rooftops, fields, rivers, roads, forests, agricultural, farms, things like that,” he said. Ninety-second-long clips will also be carried out for close-ups of anything measuring about a metre, such as vehicles and groups of people. It does, however, stop short of imaging individual people, avoiding any potential backlash experienced by the likes of Google Street View. Once up and running, users will be able to use the free service to search for specific videos and save them.
While adding video makes this a great competitor for Google Earth, it’s the relatively brief time delay for the streamed footage that is most impressive and stands to blow its predecessor out of the water (if it works).
“The cameras record the imagery, then it basically gets stored on a hard drive on the International Space Station, and then at various points during the day the hard drive will send the data down to Earth,” says Larson. “So depending on where you are and depending on the orbit and all kinds of things, the delay between when you get imaged and when the data gets sent down might be anywhere between half an hour up to a few hours. So it’s not live but it’s certainly just a bit of a tape delay.”
Unlike comprehensive Google Earth, however, Urthecast is limited in picking up only what the ISS has in its view at any one time as it orbits the Earth (since it does this 16 times in one day, however, there will be plenty of opportunity for you to catch your favourite coordinates from the right angle). It means that, although there will be a constant stream of new data, some areas of the Earth won’t get an update for, potentially, weeks. The bonus is it will eventually catch every city from multiple angles, meaning it can generate a 3D model somewhere down the line. Another bonus, users can search for their address to find out when the camera will next be capturing it (cue lots of flash mob PR stunts hitting a YouTube channel near you).
After two and a half years spent perfecting the hardware (a joint effort between Candian and UK-based engineering companies), Larson envisages Urthecast being used by more than just the amateur sleuth hunting down mysterious government bases in the desert.
“[Researchers] use that kind of imagery to monitor crops, for lots of environmental situations, to look at what icebergs are doing and rivers are doing, and if this is going to be a good year for wheat or bad.” This is where Larson is hoping to make what is a free and fun consumer website into a paid for service, with universities, researchers, businesses and government departments paying out for a close-up of a specific target at a specific time. Stills would be delivered with additional information calculated by the company, for instance an image of a crop field will include information on the area yield and how high the crops are.
“Coffee traders look at the coffee fields and say, ‘Is this going to be a good year for coffee or bad, do we need to import, do we need to export, is the price going to go up or down?’ Hedge funds will count the cars in Walmart parking lots to determine same-store sales.”
If the idea of private investors using UrtheCast simply to make the rich richer turns your stomach, you’ll be pleased to hear the companies already signed up to use the service are planning to utilise it for somewhat more vital purposes. The United Nations Institute for Training and Research plans to use it to garner helpful information from droughts or refugee movements, while DeforestACTION will have volunteers scour the site for illegal logging practices and such like.
Although the site will launch with the full works by autumn, there are plans to send up a low-resolution camera and begin streaming before summer. The API will also be released for app developers.
“I think there are all kinds of apps and games and contests and things that people will create,” Larson said. “Some apps will be trivial. Others will be profound.”