Vancouver company Urthecast to start beaming photos, video from space

TORONTO – A Vancouver-based company hopes to have two cameras hooked up to the International Space Station sometime this year that will offer Internet users a new twist on the aerial imagery offered by Google and other companies.

Unlike the satellite images users are already familiar with, which usually are months if not years out of date, Urthecast (pronounced Earth-cast) is promising to continually update its site with fresh photos and video.

After about 2 1/2 years of work, the company anticipates it will have its cameras — one shoots photos, the other video — up and running by the fall, with the ability to beam back content from space within hours.

“The cameras record the imagery, then it basically gets stored on a hard drive on the International Space Station, and then at various points during the day the hard drive will send the data down to Earth,” says CEO Scott Larson.

“So depending on where you are and depending on the orbit and all kinds of things, the delay between when you get imaged and when the data gets sent down might be anywhere between half an hour up to a few hours.

“So it’s not live but it’s certainly just a bit of a tape delay.”

The photo camera will be sharp enough to capture detail right down to street-level, although not strong enough to see people clearly.

“Anything that’s about five-metres-big you’d be able to see. So rooftops, fields, rivers, roads, forests, agricultural, farms, things like that,” Larson says.

“(Businesses and researchers) use that kind of imagery to monitor crops, for lots of environmental situations, to look at what icebergs are doing and rivers are doing, and if this is going to be a good year for wheat or bad.”

The video camera will record 90-second clips at an even closer range, picking up objects that measure about one metre.

“That’s cars moving, airplanes moving, groups of people moving,” Larson says.

“You’d never see the guy mowing his lawn in the backyard but you’d see a white golf cart on a green field.”

But because the cameras are affixed to the International Space Station, which circles the Earth about 16 times a day, users can’t get a shot of their house at any day or time, only when the angle is just right.

“Whatever it sees inside its lens is what it picks up. If (you’re)outside of it, you have to wait until it comes around next time,” Larson says.

“You won’t be able to say, ‘Make sure it’s over my house next Tuesday’ but you can say, ‘Next time it’s over my house I want a picture of me, or this field, of this river, of this city, this mining operation’ — whatever it is.”

Using Toronto as an example, he says Urthecast will typically record images and video of the city every week or 10 days but there are stretches when it won’t enter the cameras’ range for longer periods of time.

While the website will be free for consumers to use — Larson expects plenty will try to organize and record flash mobs and elaborate marriage proposals with Urthecast — the company plans to sell images and video to media organizations and businesses that use so-called earth observation data for research.

“Coffee traders look at the coffee fields and say, ‘Is this going to be a good year for coffee or bad, do we need to import, do we need to export, is the price going to go up or down?’ Hedge funds will count the cars in Walmart parking lots to determine same-store sales,” Larson says, adding he expects there will be tremendous interest in footage after a large natural disaster strikes.

The company isn’t anticipating much attention from law enforcement agencies considering the limited scope of its cameras.

“The space station is moving at about 26,000 km/h so it’s moving pretty fast and of course we’re not going to see anything like a licence plate or a person’s face,” he said.