One of the main commercial uses of satellite imagery is to help companies understand how their competitors or entire countries are performing in the global marketplace—for example, seeing “how many cranes are active on the Manhattan skyline right now, or [how many] Tankers are in port,” said Jamon Van Den Hoek, a professor of geography and director of the Conflict Ecology Laboratory at Oregon State University.
“If Maxar imagery is not being acquired in an area that is experiencing rapid economic investment, then something fishy is going on,” Van Den Hoek said. “Probably the easiest solution is that monetary interests buy these images at the highest level , where they retain exclusive rights to them.”
Not everyone agrees. “I haven’t heard of any commercial companies trying to limit things,” said Doug Specht, a geography lecturer at the University of Westminster in London. “My first reaction was that no one bothered with high resolution because it’s in the middle of a desert and the cost of owning and distributing high resolution images is very high.”
Stephen Wood, senior director of Maxar’s news bureau, told MIT Technology Review: “We don’t have any recent high-resolution imagery collected in these areas.” He wrote that the company mainly focuses on areas of interest to customers, but ” As we have imaging time available, we will collect other areas as part of our overall mission to continuously update high-resolution imagery of the entire planet. We tend to focus first on those areas of greatest change (e.g., cities, etc.), But it will also populate the rest of the world.”
When asked if clients would have exclusive access to Maxar’s imagery, Wood replied: “The vast majority of what we collect is in our public imagery archive, which is the cornerstone of our imagery business. These images Available for purchase, we end up serving our customers through a range of different contract types.”
Some of The Line’s high-resolution planetary imagery does appear to be available for licensing, though so far it has not been publicly displayed on Google Maps.
A Google spokesperson told MIT Technology Review: “We are constantly updating satellite imagery as it becomes available from our imagery providers. Since our providers typically focus on densely populated cities and places, these Regions tend to have imagery updated more frequently.” Satellite imagery on Google Maps covers only one-fifth of the Earth’s surface — but 98% of the planet’s population.
While the entire surface of the Earth is photographed at low resolution multiple times a day, the sharpest images from the newest commercial satellites can still cost more than $3,000, according to a price list from satellite imagery aggregator Apollo Imaging. These are far from comprehensive, and some images are kept from public access for national security reasons, a process known as shutter control. For example, many Chinese imaging companies will not sell any satellite photos of China, North Korea, Taiwan, or Tibet.