A Conversation with Joe Morrison on the Future of Commercial SAR

high angle view photography of field

Last month, Joe Morrison of Umbra joined Sparkgeo’s CEO, Will Cadell, to talk about the future of commercial SAR, which he covers in his most recent Medium article, Satellite Imagery is Not Becoming a Commodity

During the conversation, Morrison discussed what he believes is a very promising use case for satellite imagery – mobilization, which involves monitoring change over time. He went on to suggest that companies in the geospatial industry should focus on developing tiered pricing models for customers and collaboration with other businesses in the space. Ultimately, Morrison believes this is the path to success for the geospatial industry as a whole. 

Mapping vs. Monitoring vs. Mobilizing

According to Morrison, the traditional view of the satellite imagery industry as being divided into two main categories – mapping and monitoring – is flawed. Most geospatial businesses do not actually engage in either activity but rather provide one-off images that don\’t fit into either category. While mapping is short-term and monitoring requires real-time data, Morrison argues that the most promising use case for satellite imagery is actually mobilization, which involves monitoring change over time.

This type of imagery has traditionally been restricted to military and defense applications but making it available to consumers could open up significant opportunities for the geospatial industry. Morrison suggests that tiered pricing models, with mobilization at the highest level, mapping in the middle, and monitoring at the lowest level, could be the most effective approach to bring this to market.

Demand for Mobilized Imagery

Customers may require mobilized images in emergency situations, such as natural disasters, to obtain real-time pictures of their property. Whereas, mapping can assist in determining property lines and is generally less time-sensitive, while monitoring involves images captured within the past week or so. In terms of pricing, the urgency of the need should be taken into consideration, with more urgent requests commanding higher prices.

However, it is important to note that while these prices are not meant to be exorbitant, it’s essential to consider that the cost of placing satellites in space is high and needs to be accounted for based on customer needs.

Shifting the Business Model

Most businesses operate on a consumer-to-product model, but the mobilization model follows a product-to-consumer approach. The goal is to provide specialized data to a select group of customers, who can then use it to reach a more extensive end user base.

To achieve this, Morrison is focusing Umbra’s business development efforts on a shortlist of 100 target companies, referred to as “The First 100.” According to his forecasts, these one hundred companies should ultimately scale using the data to reach around 10,000 end users. This model shift allows Umbra to focus on providing the first 10% of data, leaving the rest up to the customers to contextualize and use as they see fit.

This approach eliminates the need for Umbra’s geospatial team to become subject matter experts in all the different industries they work with. This model also allows for tiered pricing based on each customer’s specific needs and use cases, with those requiring mobilized imagery paying the highest price and receiving priority over those requiring mapping or monitoring images.

Morrison would like to expand this list to 1000 target companies in the future, but that would likely be the cap. Based on his research, this volume of business could potentially represent a multibillion-dollar industry – something Morrison would love to see for the company’s future.

He believes this model is attractive because high-resolution, low-latency imagery is in high demand but still costly and difficult to obtain. Hence, companies need to supplement revenue with lower-cost options. By focusing on mobilization efforts, Umbra can fill its schedule with a range of customers and create a variable pricing model to meet the unique needs of each of them.

Stay Small, Stay Focused

Morrison believes achieving this goal will require effective management and a hyper-focus on profitability. Companies can improve the value offered to their entire customer base by using excess profits from their higher-ticket customer requests. Umbra can then increase its market share and grow at a faster rate. Morrison argues that this hyper-focus is the key to Umbra’s success because taking on too many projects would simultaneously hinder growth and profitability.

In terms of cost, he believes it will only take one or two individuals to make the necessary commitment. From there, he plans to create an open archive available through the company’s website, where the pricing will be listed, and orders can be placed without the need for direct communication with a customer representative. This system will automate a significant portion of Umbra’s sales activity, freeing up their team’s time and budget to focus on the image capture schedule.

Leaving a Legacy

Morrison is committing his life and career to making the world more legible and understandable to machines, while providing accessible information to anyone about what is happening in the world around them. He is passionate about this cause and driven by the desire to make data previously only available to a few large intelligence agencies, accessible to researchers, college students, journalists and non-profits to create and discover new things in their own work.

He believes that those operating in the geospatial industry have the potential to create products that will be widely used and consumed – similar to how open-source software has fostered innovation and progress for the common good. At night, he says that he thinks about the impact that he can have through this work. Ultimately, he hopes to empower others to achieve their own goals and visions for the future by using the data from Umbra’s work over the coming years.

Collaboration is Key

Morrison argues that even when high-resolution, timely satellite imagery is abundant, it does not necessarily mean that the overall industry will become a commodity one. Different systems are suited for different purposes, such as monitoring, foundational mapping, long-term change detection, instant verification, classifying and counting. There will be room for every company to find its niche and customer base within that.

Ultimately, he believes that the path to success for businesses in geospatial is to come together as a community and establish open standards for interoperability. This approach benefits the entire industry, allowing everyone to collaborate, coordinate efforts, and drive progress. He notes that geospatial companies are not currently taking this approach, and he hopes to see this change in the near future.