Live from TED

Taking pictures of the entire planet, every day: Will Marshall at TED2014

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Will Marshall. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“We’re on spaceship Earth,” begins Will Marshall during Session 9 of TED2014. “It’s fragile and finite — and we need to take care of it.” He shows a satellite image of Earth. Yes, it’s beautiful, says Marshall, but it’s outdated. The information is old, and he says, “We can’t fix what we can’t see.”

Satellite imaging, says Marshall, is big, expensive and slow. A typical satellite is 6 meters tall, 5 meters wide, weighs three tons — and costs $855 million. What we actually need, says Marshall, is images of the whole planet every day, and the current satellites are simply not scalable. So what we actually need are small, ultra-compact and highly capable satellites — like the one he’s building at PlanetLabs. He pulls one out. At 10 by 10 by 30 centimeters, it fits in Marshall’s hands easily. Its weight: 4 kilograms.

Contained in each satellite are the latest sensors and apps, which enables for what Marshall refers to as agile aerospace. So far PlanetLabs has sent off 28 tiny satellites, and in the next year they plan to send up 100 in total. Says Marshall, “This will be the largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites in human history.”

The satellites will be able to capture an entire picture of the Earth every single day — a line-scanner of the Earth, if you will. The applications therefore are limitless: urban development, water security, food security, the list goes on. This, says Marshall, will be an entirely new global data set, available to anyone. “In short,” he says, “the goal is to democratize access to information about our planet.”