Pictures from high above Earth’s surface, on display at a New York City press conference in June, were startling not just because of their high definition but because they added a new dimension to satellite imagery—time. The images took the form of videos that showed individual cars moving on highways.

The company behind the images, start-up firm UrtheCast, had a pair of cameras installed on the Russian side of the International Space Station last year and plans to add two more to the U.S. side. At the press conference, UrtheCast announced the coming launch—currently scheduled for later this summer—of an on-demand satellite imagery service that will include video.

UrtheCast, based in Vancouver, is just one of a host of small companies set to provide more frequent and more extensive coverage of Earth’s surface from orbit than has ever been available. The new services are driven by smaller and more capable sensors and other electronics, cloud computing services and reductions in launch costs. UrtheCast, for example, paid exactly nothing for launch. It got its first cameras on the space station in exchange for providing exclusive rights to imagery of Russia to Moscow.

Other companies are taking advantage of lower-cost launch services offered by companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX to send up constellations of imaging satellites. Even as UrtheCast released its videos of major world cities, BlackSky Global announced its plan for a constellation of 60 low-flying imaging satellites, with the first to be launched next year. These companies are joined by Skybox Imaging—which was acquired by Google for $500 million last year—Planet Labs, and DigitalGlobe.

Greater frequency, greater value
The new services will provide coverage of just about any place on Earth practically on demand. Instead of waiting days or even weeks for images that may no longer reflect current conditions, subscribers to the new services will be able to call up imagery taken within the last day.

Glen Russell, remote sensing coordinator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), says he’s looking forward to accessing the new services. “It’s an encouraging time to be in this position because these companies and these technologies are advancing to a point where we can do amazing things to increase our efficiency and effectiveness and our accuracy,” he says. “They will certainly improve our ability to support disaster survivors and national decision makers.”

Access to more frequent imagery will also be a boon to law enforcement, says Ray Purdy, co-director of Air & Space Evidence, a U.K.-based firm that helps nab polluters, perpetrators of insurance fraud and other scofflaws with the help of satellite imagery. “Frequency is a massive issue to us,” Purdy says. “Having the ability to go back and see what happened in the past obviously has a clear value to investigators and lawyers. At the moment we can't help some clients because the archives (for historical evidence) just aren't complete enough.” Purdy says that for maximum value, new satellite imaging services will have to, as he puts it, “switch on the record button and then archive the data.”

Which is exactly what UrtheCast, for one, intends to do. Daniel Lopez, director of technology, said at the press conference that UrtheCast had already archived close to a petabyte of data, even before officially launching its services. Future customers will be able to call up imagery from any time and place of coverage on demand, a feat made possible, Lopez said, by cloud computing services. “We couldn’t do this several years ago,” he noted.

Privacy Concerns
At the moment, most of the new services can provide imagery down to about a meter of resolution. That’s good enough to see individual vehicles but not see—let alone recognize—people. For that reason privacy advocates, for now, are not overly concerned about satellite imagery. “Human identification sets off the alarm bells for privacy,” says Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Once you have the ability to not only see that it’s a person on the ground but to identify the person, obviously that’s going to raise some privacy issues.”

The new satellite imaging services are not there yet but that could change. Last year DigitalGlobe received permission from the U.S. Department of Commerce to sell imagery below 50 centimeters in resolution, a feat made possible by the launch, also last year, of the company’s Worldview 3 satellite. In February DigitalGlobe announced the availability of images with 30-centimeter resolution—good enough, the company said, to spot utility lines and manhole covers. And getting very close to spotting people, too.