This paper reviews the trends in Earth observation (EO) and the possible impacts on markets of the new initiatives, launched either by existing providers of EO data or by new players, privately funded. After a presentation of the existing models, the paper discusses the new approaches, addressing both commercial and institutional markets. New concepts for the very high resolution markets, in Europe and in the US, are the main focus of this analysis. Two complementary perspectives are summarised: on the one hand, the type of system and its operational performance and, on the other, the related business models, concepts of operation and ownership schemes.
Until now, Earth observation systems for the most critical institutional needs are mainly dedicated assets owned and operated by governments or public organisations, often at national level. Even in the case of dual use missions, the governmental and commercial operations are in general fully segregated for the very high resolution satellites.
Recent evolutions could affect this paradigm. Firstly, the increased performance of commercial satellites has a high degree of convergence with defence needs: 25–30 cm resolution is now the benchmark or at least a very short term target for commercial missions. The second evolution is the development of hybrid procurement schemes, combining proprietary missions and data buy framework contracts, partly triggered by the budgetary constraints of public customers, some failures in the execution of large spy satellites contracts and by the willingness to foster the competitiveness of industry on the export market.
New space is another trend, which is more disruptive. This trend begun in the Silicon Valley and spread worldwide, arousing our expectations, sometimes excessively. This new model involves not only start-ups but also big web actors with substantial investment capacity. Both aim to transforming space into a commodity, taking benefit from the convergence between Information technology and EO. Beside the massive constellations for broadband Internet access, some initiatives have been launched for Earth observation markets, targeting high resolution and high revisit. Last but not least, more and more countries, the newcomers, invest in their own EO capacity, confirming the soft power dimension of space but also opening new opportunities for international or regional cooperation.
As many unpredictable events may occur, even in a short time frame, the last part of the paper has a prospective dimension. Based on market trends and industrial stakes, it discusses the realism and likelihood of possible scenarios and identifies their impacts on the EO landscape and the main stakeholders involved, in particular in Europe:
– The governmental and institutional actors, using Earth observation data for their operational missions, with an evolving balance between sovereign assets and external services.
– The commercial operators of very high resolution satellites, with the new market opportunities and the possible emergence of worldwide champions.
– The satellite manufacturers and their competitiveness.
– The role of nations and space agencies, including the non-dependence or national sovereignty and international cooperation dimensions.
Based on the comparison of three “radical” scenarios, the conclusion shows that there are opportunities for service providers and satellite manufacturers. Even without clear answer to the future industrial, technical and political structure of EO systems, relevant indicators to be monitored during the next three-five years are identified. The last section focuses on Europe and the role of institutions in order to support European champions and small and medium companies in the new worldwide competition.