Satellite Eyes in the Sky Will Be Able to Recognize You Soon

Posted on Mar 14, 2024 by Glyn Moody

Back in 2019, we noted that a new generation of commercial satellites would soon pose a serious threat to privacy. It’s difficult to hide anything outdoors from an invisible eye in the sky, including people – after all, we can’t stay in our houses all the time. One development was the availability of inexpensive nanosatellites. Another was the likelihood that commercial satellites would soon be allowed to carry out surveillance of the earth with a resolution of 10 centimeters – about the size of your hand. 

In fact that same year, two major groups – the US Department of Commerce, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – sought comments on proposed updated rules for licensing “private remote systems”, aka satellites. The new regulations were released in May 2020 and created a three-tier approach according to capability. 

The first tier concerned systems that offer data that is “substantially the same” as data from other sources, such as foreign groups. In other words, since overseas companies can supply the same data, there’s no point trying to regulate it in the US. The second tier applied to systems that can only be matched by other US companies. The US government would require “shutter control” that essentially allowed imaging to be restricted for certain sensitive areas. 

The most interesting tier was the third one, which would cover systems offering “a completely novel capability.” Here, the Department of Commerce would have the power to impose additional temporary conditions lasting up to three years. One startup planning to offer Tier 3 services is Albedo, which was granted a license from the NOAA to provide 10 cm satellite imagery commercially in December 2021. This is precisely the level of detail that the earlier PIA article suggested might soon arrive. A post on the Albedo blog lists some of the applications its new service would make possible:

Counting trucks, convertibles, picking out details on the vehicles such as sunroofs, racing stripes, and if trucks have anything in their bed

Seeing details of roofs and properties, such as swimming pools, trampoline units and other dwellings

Identifying vegetation risk to power lines, one of the main causes of wildfires and outages

Mapping road features such as turn lanes, passing lanes, crosswalks and parking spaces

Albedo believes that many industry sectors will use the high-resolution imagery once it becomes available, including government departments, consumers, financial services, insurance, energy, mapping, infrastructure, and agriculture, and ESG (Environmental, Social, & Governance) groups. The hard part is not finding customers for these new capabilities, but providing them at an economical price. To do so requires a relatively novel approach: Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) systems. 

Moving satellites closer to the earth cuts the cost of the imaging optics, reduces demand for radio power, lowers exposure to radiation, and speeds up the transfer of data. However, it comes at a cost: greater drag from the thicker atmosphere encountered at lower altitudes. The real engineering challenge is how to deal with this. 

There’s relatively little information about the technical aspects of Albedo’s VLEO satellites on its website, but a 2021 thread on Hacker News includes some details about the new services from Topher Haddad, Albedo Co-founder & CEO. He explained:

We’re able to achieve substantial cost savings by taking advantage of emerging space technologies, two of which are electric propulsion and on-orbit refueling. Our satellites will fly super close to the earth, essentially in the atmosphere, enabling 10 cm resolution without having to build a school bus sized satellite.

Electric propulsion makes the fuel on our satellites way more efficient, at the expense of low thrust. Think about it like your car gasoline going from 30 to 300 mpg, but you could only drive 5 mph. Our propulsion only needs to maintain a steady offset to the atmospheric drag, so low thrust and high efficiency is perfect. By the time our first few satellites run out of fuel, on-orbit refueling will be a reality, and we can just refill our tanks. We’re still in the architecture and design phase, but we expect to have our first few satellites flying in 2024 and the full constellation up in 2027.

Haddad emphasized that using his company’s services would be extremely simple: “all you need to buy imagery is a credit card.” That raises questions of access, and the abuse of this new source of fine-grained data about everything happening on the surface of the planet. Haddad acknowledged this issue:

We’re acutely aware of the privacy implications and potential for abuse/misuse. There isn’t a straightforward or easy answer to this, but we want to be ahead of the curve and not repeat the mistakes that other companies have made in the past. We expect this to be an on-going, evolving issue over time, but also something we want to start thinking about from day one. As far as practical steps, we’ll be approving new customers on a case-by-case basis, building our robust internal tools to find bad actors, as well as the obvious measures of adding punitive clauses to our terms and conditions. 

The company’s site doesn’t add any more information about how it will deal with the serious privacy challenges that 10 cm resolution imagery will bring with it. According to an article in the New York Times, 10 cm resolution means you can pick out people as more than dots, but not identify them individually. However, if 10cm resolution is about to become accessible to anyone with a credit card, the next generation probably already exists for deep-pocketed governments, and will be available commercially in the future. That probably means that someday soon satellite eyes in the sky will be able to pick out our faces – and maybe even recognize us, thanks to AI.