Kjartan Rist for Forbes Magazine
Spacetech might spark images of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos racing into orbit, but there is much more to the sector than attention-seeking billionaires. Geospatial intelligence (or GEOINT) is fast emerging as one of the most exciting areas of spacetech innovation, with the potential to transform some of the most traditional and complex B2B industries. As a result, GEOINT is catching the attention of VCs as an area poised for massive growth, with the global market projected to almost double to $107.8 billion by 2026.
What is geospatial intelligence?
GEOINT refers to information derived from images or data associated with a particular location, usually captured by satellites, and processed by high-power computers. Sending satellites into space used to be prohibitively expensive for all but the largest organizations; usually either governments, military, or media behemoths building global positioning systems (GPS). But as the costs have reduced, GEOINT has become more accessible for a wider variety of use-cases.
Progress has also been aided by advances in other areas of technology, such as AI, machine learning, data analytics, and cloud, which enable satellite data to be processed more quickly, efficiently, and accurately, often delivering images and insights in real-time. For those with the skills to harness these innovations, GEOINT offers a unique perspective of human activity, physical geography, and how the world around us is changing, that most businesses have never had access to before.
A risky and unpredictable world
The business case for GEOINT has been given a further boost over the last 18 months, as the pandemic has severely limited global travel. Businesses that are reliant on understanding what is happening ‘on the ground’ have been unable to hop on a plane or train to find out for themselves. Meanwhile, Covid has highlighted the growing unpredictability that we all face, and the power of macro events, such as pandemics, climate change, and natural disasters, to cripple entire sectors. It’s become clear that we need better ways of predicting and mitigating future crises.
Now the race is on among startups and investors to identify the most promising use-cases for GEOINT, and it’s becoming clear that many of these exist in what you might call ‘traditional’ B2B sectors. By providing detailed, multilayered images and insights of geographical locations, anywhere in the world, GEOINT is transforming how these complex industries manage risk, provide customer value, and drive growth and profits.
GEOINT is being used by insurers during underwriting and claims processes to assess physical risks and impacts more accurately. Companies such as Cape Analytics are using aerial imagery to show how likely a property is to be hit by fire or flood, to assess property or land condition, or spot fraudulent claims. There are also huge synergies with parametric insurance, where a policy pays out based on a particular event occurring. GEOINT can indicate at what point a policy should kick in, based on physical indicators, providing more responsive cover for the customer, while minimizing unnecessary admin and travel costs for providers.
The technology is opening up whole areas of insurance, which have traditionally not been covered effectively. For example, in agricultural insurance, less than 20% of smallholders globally are protected, due to the lack of verifiable information and the cost of farm visits. But new players such as Pula and Ibisa Network are closing this gap, focusing on insurance for smallholders in developing countries, by using satellite data to assess their needs, and review any resulting claims.
GEOINT is also enabling insurers to better cover new and emerging risks, such as extreme weather, climate change, and natural disasters, which are gradually encroaching on more of the world and its populations. Promising companies in this space include Arbol, which uses GEOINT to assess the risks of these occurrences, and enable clients spanning sectors such as maritime, hospitality, energy, and agriculture, to protect themselves more effectively.
Just like insurers, supply chains are at the mercy of physical and geographical risks, and the pandemic has served to highlight how unexpected events can disrupt the vital flow of goods around the world. Yet, even in our technological age, it is still difficult to get real-time visibility of entire supply chains, with companies usually reliant on internal data to map and track their routes. This leaves plenty of missing links where disruption can occur with very little warning.
GEOINT can plug these visibility gaps, with innovators like Orbital Insight enabling companies to see where raw materials are coming from, the connections between factories, farms, and warehouses, and their status, so that they can spot and mitigate any issues early. The technology is also increasingly being used by companies such as Satelligence to identify environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks in supply chains, identifying unsustainable practices, or negative impacts, such as deforestation.
Property and real-estate
GEOINT can also give real estate investors greater visibility of risks, opportunities, and progress related to their portfolios. Innovators such as Near Space Labs are capturing aerial images of towns and cities to aid investors and developers in spotting acquisition targets, by highlighting underdeveloped areas, as well as insights related to footfall, car traffic, and transport routes. Once planning and construction begin, startups like Sensat, are using GEOINT to aid the design and build process, identify risks, and monitor site progress, without the need for numerous phone calls, handovers, and site visits.
B2B sectors have historically been behind the curve when it comes to digital transformation, compared with their consumer-focused cousins. But we’re now seeing more founders focus on how emerging technologies can be applied to these vast, complex industries, and GEOINT is the perfect example of this in action. GEOINT has the potential to transform both the processes and infrastructure that underpin the business world and shape the physical landscape around us. VC investors would be wise to take notice.