How Skybox Imaging can help Google get the 'next billion' online

Google just spent $500 million on Skybox Imaging, a satellite company that will help Google see and fly further than it has before.

YouTube/SkyBox Imaging
Google agreed to purchase Skybox Imaging, a satellite imaging company, for $500 million on Tuesday.

From mapping out Angkor Wat to offering time-lapse imaging of the Freedom Towers in New York City, Google Maps has offered both amateur mappers and seasoned cartographers something new this year.

Now Google is heading to new heights with its mapping service – literally. Google bought satellite imaging company Skybox Imaging for $500 million in a move that indicates the tech company is ready to take its mapping to a new level. Though the deal still has to be approved by regulatory agencies, with this technology Google could take aerial photos that virtually map difficult-to-reach areas, and extend Internet access to remote parts of the world.

Skybox Imaging builds satellites, crunches data, and writes code to help break down the images that it captures from above. It then works with global business clients who are interested in its data for a myriad of reasons, from mapping terrain to measuring supply chain efficiency to estimating humanitarian relief need.

“Skybox’s satellites will help keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery,” says Google in a statement about the deal. “Over time, we also hope that Skybox’s team and technology will be able to help improve Internet access and disaster relief — areas Google has long been interested in.”

Skybox, a 5-year-old company with about 100 employees also based in Google’s hometown of Mountain View, Calif., says it was ready to team up with a bigger company to pursue more ambitious goals.

“Skybox and Google share more than just a zip code,” say representatives from Skybox in a blog post. “We both believe in making information (especially accurate geospatial information) accessible and useful. And to do this, we’re both willing to tackle problems head on — whether it’s building cars that drive themselves or designing our own satellites from scratch.”

Though Skybox will likely be initially tapped for its mapping capabilities, with Google, there is always a “moonshot” goal. In this case, it is extending Internet access further than ever before. This has been a goal of major tech companies for years, as Internet usage in developed countries is already nearly universal. Google and others say the aim is to make the knowledge that comes along with the Internet equally available to any human. However, most major tech companies also make more revenue as more people view their websites.

Earlier this year, Google bought Titan Aerospace, a satellite drone company that makes solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles that can remain suspended over an area for up to five years. The goal would be to use the drones as Internet satellites in areas difficult to reach by fiber optic cables. Originally, it was rumored that Facebook was looking to purchase Titan Aerospace.

Google has also made in-house efforts to bring the Internet to more areas of the world. In recent years, Google has worked on an effort called Project Loon, which would use balloons with antennas to reach those in difficult to wire locations.

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