Shall one be required to make five phone calls and sign three documents to order SAR data?

The ongoing satellite SAR revolution is accelerating. Currently, there are over 50 SAR satellites providing radar imagery, which is more than double compared to 2018. But the data stream is not everything. We need to do more to make SAR operational and useful. It requires collaboration between SAR satellite operators and added value companies, as well as open and clear business models in order to provide real value to the end-users.


                                                                    Four ICEYE’s SAR satellites flying in formation. Credit: LeoLabs


Imagine the following situation. Firstly, there is unified easy access to all civil and commercial satellite SAR data sources. Secondly, the data is interoperable across different sensors. Moreover, you can get hourly revisits over any place on Earth, latency is in minutes, and the product generation and results delivery are fully automatic. Doable? I believe that with the 4th era in SAR developments it is inevitable.

4th era in SAR data

The creation of the first SAR sensor was incentivized by the military sector when the first airborne SAR sensors were developed in the 1960s by Lockheed Martin in the US. The second era was related to big, complex, and costly scientific and military SAR satellites. Started in the 1970s, again, by Lockheed, but also by NOAA and NASA JPL. This era somehow still continues today with the Sentinel-1, ALOS-2, or TerraSAR-X/TanDEM-X satellites.

Photo of the ERS-1 spacecraft in launch configuration (image credit: ESA)

But it is being slowly replaced by the third era of microsatellites. This has been started by
ICEYE, in 2018, and followed by others like Capella Space, Umbra
, PredaSAR, iQPS or Synspective.


 Artist impression of Capella SAR satellite (background image courtesy NASA), image credit: Capella)

The upcoming fourth era will be related to new business models for SAR data and easy-to-access, effective, and operational added-value services based on that data. 


                                                          (GRAPHIC) N. DESAI/SCIENCE; (DATA) ESA; WMO; GUNTER’S SPACE PAGE


What needs to happen?

SAR data can help in many different areas. However, each of those areas requires different and deep expertise for added-value companies in order to succeed. You cannot be a “SAR” company. Instead, you need to be “a specific problem-solution” company using SAR. None of the SAR operators or downstream companies can cover all potential application areas, even if they would want to. ICEYE’s Flood Monitoring service is a great example of focused attention. 

I fully agree with the words of Gabe Dominocelo, co-founder of Umbra, who said “As more sensors are launched and prices come down, we’re going to see the commercial market expand”. Lower prices are mandatory for commercial SAR-based services to find their place in the market. But it is also necessary for data providers to implement easier access to their data streams, e.g. through online APIs. Making five phone calls and signing three documents on the way shall not be necessary to order and acquire SAR data if we want to target commercial markets.


But this already starts to change

Some of the above-mentioned SAR operators change that approach by implementing both new pricing models, as well as easy access mechanisms to their space infrastructure. Hopefully, the remaining operators will follow quickly, so that the vision of the 4th era of SAR will become real. Fingers crossed and make SAR easy!