Bill Gates just endorsed a startup that could surveil every corner of the Earth from space

If you thought the UK’s CCTV habit was getting out of hand, you’re not going to be a fan of Bill Gates’ latest investment. The world’s second richest man joined a group of high-profile investors in backing EarthNow, the startup which wants to monitor the planet from space. AirBus, the SoftBank Group, and satellite industry veteran Greg Wyler are said to be amongst the company’s backers.

The premise behind the business is more than a little alarming. EarthNow want to launch a network of satellites into space, with the intention to monitor the farthest flung corners of the globe via live video screen. This is being packaged by the company as “innovative and unique real-time Earth observation services”. Hmm. Services to whom, we wonder.

EarthNow’s website seems pretty wholesome in its endeavours, declaring magnanimously, “One way for each of us to better understand the health of our planet is to see it for ourselves […] Our aim is for you to experience Earth’s beauty and its fragility, and to recognise the importance of being good stewards of our world”. It then goes on to reel off a pretty impressive list of potential undertakings, including catching illegal fishing ships in the act, detecting forest fires from the moment they start, assessing the health of crops, observing conflict zones, and even tracking the migration of large whales.

Meanwhile, details of the logistical minutiae are still being worked out: EarthNow says they are in discussion with several launch service providers, and are soon to hire a “Chief Privacy Officer” to ensure adherence to privacy laws. It’s yet unclear as to what height the satellites will be operating at.

If this sounds like a nascent pipe dream, it’s not. Wyler’s company OneWeb is well-versed in this industry, having already launched satellites with a snappy 130ms latency, with the lofty (literally) goal of operating a network of hundreds of satellites providing broadband across the world by 2020. That’s a paltry 18 months. This is the technology that’s powering EarthNow’s “services” – all wrapped up into 500lbs of satellite hardware.

EarthNow is a startup, but not for long; on Wednesday, the firm announced its intention to flee the venture capital nest, so to speak, namely the Intellectual Ventures ISF incubator where it has been dwelling. The firm is well on its way to becoming a full-scale commercially active enterprise, but what does that mean for us?

EarthNow’s CEO, in the meantime, sounds pretty confident. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Russell Hannigan explained that EarthNow would benefit from friends in high places (again, literally). The company will be using OneWeb’s technology, its assembly line and its manufacturing process – a pretty sizeable leg-up all in all. Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem like cash flow’s going to be much of an issue either: SoftBank has injected $1.5 billion (£1.1 billion) into the project.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that the satellites will perform onboard analysis of the live footage, though just what kind of analysis – and of what – has for now been left to the imagination, although it makes for some pretty worrisome rumination.

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, used under Creative Commons 

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