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Bridging the Gap: How Buying Satellite and Drone Data is Evolving

Editor’s note: This article was written as part of EO Hub – a journalistic collaboration between UP42 and Geoawesomeness. Created for policymakers, decision-makers, geospatial experts and enthusiasts alike, EO Hub is a key resource for anyone trying to understand how Earth observation is transforming our world. Read more about EO Hub here

Those working with Earth observation data have always been presented with two options: the detailed precision of drones or the expansive reach of satellite imagery. Since most projects face some form of constraints, whether in the form of budget limitations or the logistical challenges of sourcing data from multiple providers, many have had to settle for one type of data over the other. This can affect their scope and potential—satellite data may not provide sufficient detail, while drones might not be practical for the scale of the project.

However, the industry is currently undergoing a significant shift, and these challenges are being addressed head-on. Accessing comprehensive geospatial data is about to become more streamlined—and more accessible—than ever before.

A Comparison of Satellite and Drone Data

Before considering how their procurement differs, it’s worth remembering what sets these two powerful data sources apart in terms of their qualities and applications.

Satellite data provides a continuous, broad overview of the Earth’s surface, which is advantageous for large-scale and long-term monitoring projects like vegetation mapping and environmental management. The resolution of satellite imagery varies: Open-source data may be around 10 meters per pixel, while premium services can offer resolution down to 30 centimeters per pixel—but at a higher cost,  ranging on average from $20 to $30 per square kilometer for tasked data​​. Satellites’ ability to operate is unimpeded by weather conditions—although the quality of images can be affected by cloud cover. Satellites also offer the valuable ability to analyze historical data, or monitor an area of interest long-term, through frequent revisits.

In contrast, drone data offers higher resolution images, sometimes down to less than 1 centimeter per pixel. This allows more precise and detailed analysis of specific areas, making drones ideal as an engineering tool. Drones can also be deployed rapidly, and provide greater control over data collection—ideal for time-sensitive applications. In contrast to satellites, drones are not affected by cloud cover; however, it may not be possible to operate them in adverse weather conditions or in some jurisdictions. They are often cost-effective for small, targeted missions, but will prove far costlier for expansive projects.

As can be seen, each technology is uniquely suited to different aspects of geospatial analysis, and the decision to use drone or satellite data will typically depend on the project’s scope, the detail required, and available budget. However, by combining both data sources, truly comprehensive insights can be achieved: for instance, in disaster response, satellite imagery can pinpoint areas of concern, and drone imagery can then be deployed to aid rescue missions. In construction, satellites can assist with project oversight while drones can provide engineering measurements. In environmental management, satellites can track changes over time, whereas drones can assess specific surface features or polluting infrastructure. This dual approach is key in enabling targeted and efficient interventions on the ground.

Acquiring the data

Buying both satellite and drone data has traditionally been a complex process, but recent advancements have streamlined these transactions significantly.

Buying Satellite Data:

In the past, satellite data could only be purchased directly from satellite operators—an at-times arduous process. However, it has now become more accessible through various platforms.

  • Marketplaces like UP42 have simplified the purchasing process, offering a user-friendly interface and immediate access to a diverse range of satellite data, including historical data for time-series analysis or recent imagery for up-to-date monitoring. One of the most significant advantages of using a marketplace is that they aggregate multiple data sources, rather than being limited to a single satellite constellation. This variety can be crucial, as any one provider may not meet all the requirements of a project.

Buying Drone Data:

When it comes to drone data, the options have been to either operate drones in-house or to purchase the data from service providers.

  • In-house drone operations can be cost-effective for those who use drone data at scale, but it requires a high degree of engineering knowledge and skill, and will also involve significant initial investment in hardware and/or software. Costs include purchasing a drone and obtaining relevant pilot licenses, while learning to use photogrammetry processing software will require both time and money. Additionally, securing flight authorization from local air navigation service providers is likely to be essential.
  • Service providers, on the other hand, provide a turnkey solution for businesses needing precise, area-specific insights without the overhead of managing drone operations. Typically, these companies don’t just provide their own drones, but also handle every aspect of the project, from flight planning and authorization to data capture and processing. It’s a practical option for companies that need specialized drone data but do not have the infrastructure or expertise to collect it themselves. There is now also an increasing number of companies offering tailored drone mapping, surveying and inspection services, reflecting a growing demand for high-resolution geospatial data.
  • Marketplaces for drone data now also present a powerful new option for those seeking drone data. Globhe, for instance, is a platform which crowdsources drone data from around 10,000 independent drone operators. It allows for drone ‘tasking’ from any area of interest, as well as providing a huge 70TB database of imagery at a fraction of the cost of custom data.

Integrating Drone and Satellite Data Acquisition

Whilst purchasing both types of data previously involved navigating multiple providers, the industry has recently made another leap forward in terms of convenience and efficiency due to a partnership between UP42 and Globhe. Globhe’s vast selection of drone data and tasking capabilities are now available directly through UP42’s marketplace, creating a game-changing new option for customers who require both types of data, and ensuring consistent, high-quality geospatial information is readily available for any area of interest.

The single marketplace model not only saves time, but also opens the door to new geospatial applications—it’s likely to be especially useful for projects that span multiple locations worldwide, including in developing countries where contracting reliable drone services can be a challenge.

The Democratization of Earth Observation Continues

The integration of drone and satellite data procurement is another significant stride toward democratizing Earth observation. A simplified process, through initiatives like the UP42-Globhe partnership, makes geospatial data more accessible to a wider range of projects and sectors, including those with lower budgets. This in turn paves the way for smaller, more agile projects, potentially presenting innovative new solutions for sustainability, development, and more.

As the marketplace continues to evolve, we can expect to see an upsurge in creative and impactful applications of geospatial data across various fields, making a substantial contribution to our understanding and management of the planet.

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Are Drones and Satellites Competing or Complementary as Sources of Geospatial Data?

Editor’s note: This article was written as part of EO Hub – a journalistic collaboration between UP42 and Geoawesomeness. Created for policymakers, decision-makers, geospatial experts and enthusiasts alike, EO Hub is a key resource for anyone trying to understand how Earth observation is transforming our world. Read more about EO Hub here

Both drones and satellites have helped to usher in a new era in Earth observation. These two remote sensing tools have revolutionized our ability to gather detailed data about our planet’s surface. While they might seem like rivals at first glance, a closer look reveals that their strengths are in fact complementary, with each making up for the other’s weaknesses.

Drones are recognized for their ability to capture detailed, high-resolution images of relatively small areas, with unparalleled agility and precision. However, their range, coverage and flight time are inherently limited, often restricted by their battery life and susceptibility to adverse weather conditions. Here, satellite data can be a powerful ally, with the ability to capture vast swathes of the Earth’s surface quickly, efficiently and repeatedly.

There are numerous instances where data from drones and satellites can be utilised in tandem to give a more comprehensive picture of the Earth’s surface.

Comparing Drones and Satellites Data Sources:

Looking deeper into the specific attributes of satellite and drone data, it becomes apparent that each source offers unique benefits. When used together, the two tools provide a synergistic approach to Earth Observation. This table provides a comparison of their qualities:

The key benefit of drones is arguably their ability to provide very-high spatial resolution data, down to a centimeter level—in other words, incredibly detailed imagery. This is ideal for engineering tasks or safety assessments, for example. By contrast, while the spatial resolution provided by satellites is improving all the time, it is still significantly lower than that captured by drones, typically ranging from meters to tens of meters. Where satellites really excel, however, is in their ability to provide a macro perspective, capturing data over vast areas quickly and efficiently. Datasets on this scale are invaluable for comprehensive analysis and decision-making, and management of large-scale projects.

Another advantage of drones is that they can be deployed incredibly rapidly and are highly maneuverable—critical for time-sensitive or targeted missions, such as searching for survivors in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The immediacy with which drone data can be accessed and analyzed is also of huge importance. However, a drone’s flight time is often restricted by limited battery life. Satellites are not such a flexible and highly targeted option, but they offer constant and consistent monitoring. They are also able to make frequent revisits to a given area of interest, offering regularly updated data—ideal for long-term monitoring.

One of the biggest drawbacks of drones is that they can be limited by weather conditions like high winds. Their use may also be restricted in certain locations due to local legislation or logistical challenges. Satellites, however, can observe any place on earth, and capture data in all conditions—even at night, if using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) systems. It is worth pointing out, however, that in heavy cloud cover, satellites are not able to capture spectral data, unlike drones, which can fly below the clouds.

Finally, although cheaper options are becoming available, satellite data can still be quite expensive. This means that drones are often the most affordable solution for localized or short-term operations. On the other hand, for large-scale projects, economies of scale mean that satellite data very often proves to be more cost-effective.

In short, the wide areas of coverage and frequent revisits achieved by satellites provide data on a scale not possible for drones, while drones provide an ideal solution for many of the shortcomings of satellites. Furthermore, satellite imagery, with its macro perspective, can contextualize the detailed data provided by drones. When combined, they deliver a rich, robust data set, invaluable for a wide range of applications.

Acquiring the Data:

When it comes to drone data, there are a few operational models that cater to various project needs. For instance, individual users may own and operate their drones, which gives immediate availability and full control over the data collection process. It can also be the most affordable option for simple or small-scale projects. However, operating drones requires a certain amount of expertise depending on project complexity and size, and for a variety of reasons direct ownership may be impractical. Therefore, drone operations are sometimes subcontracted—either to specialized companies that provide the drone equipment and pilots, or by purchasing data from platforms like Globhe, which crowdsource data from professional drone operators.

Satellite data, on the other hand, has traditionally been prohibitively expensive for many use cases, and purchasing it directly from satellite companies has been a challenge to say the least. However, data marketplaces like UP42 are democratizing the use of satellite data, making it increasingly easy for users to purchase discreet data sets, or even task satellites themselves, and to integrate this data into their workflows.

Interestingly, the recent partnership between UP42 and Globhe is a prime example of how the landscape is still changing. This collaboration brings Globhe’s world-leading collection of drone imagery to UP42’s well-established geospatial marketplace, and enables users to order drone data from any area of interest around the world in much the same way as they procure satellite data. Being able to access both types of data from one source has the potential to radically streamline the process of data acquisition and analysis. The development is significant for a number of industries, including agriculture, environmental conservation, and disaster response, where the combination of drone and satellite data can lead to more informed decisions and effective interventions.

Use Cases for Drones and Satellites Working in Tandem

Disaster response is a key application for Earth Observation. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, drones are rapidly deployed to assess damage, providing vital data to aid rescue operations and damage assessment. Satellites, meanwhile, offer a wider perspective, mapping the affected area and tracking the progress of recovery efforts over time. This combination ensures that every phase of the disaster response—from immediate relief to long-term rebuilding and prevention—is informed by the best possible data.

Similarly, in the field of flood monitoring, drones can be deployed to capture high-resolution imagery of the affected areas—images which show the extent of the damage and can be instrumental in planning immediate response actions. Satellites further complement this by monitoring the extent of the flooding over a wider area, and tracking its movement over time, offering a strategic view that’s essential for recovery and future planning.

Another compelling use case is in agriculture—particularly in crop monitoring. Both drones and satellites can be equipped with multispectral imaging cameras to assess the health of crops. However, while drones can assess crops at a granular level, identifying areas of stress or disease sometimes on individual plants, satellites can monitor the growth and yield of crops over an entire farming region. This dual approach ensures both targeted intervention and overarching management of agricultural resources.

Complementary Tools for Comprehensive Understanding

Drones and satellites are not competitors when it comes to Earth Observation. Instead, with their unique capabilities, they are complementary tools. When used together, they provide a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of the Earth’s surface, which can prove crucial for a variety of applications. As an increasing number of industries continue to leverage these technologies, we can look forward to a future in which our planet is observed with unprecedented precision and insight.

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