Google buys Skybox for $500 million. The deal could be about more than maps.


Skybox Imaging headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Google bought a satellite imaging company Tuesday that could do more than improve Google Maps.

For $500 million, Google acquired Skybox Imaging, a five-year-old start-up that builds imaging satellites to capture detailed pictures and high-definition video of landscapes. It also designs software able to analyze large quantities of satellite imagery.

“Skybox’s satellites will help keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery,” Google said. “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.”

“The time is right to join a company who can challenge us to think even bigger and bolder, and who can support us in accelerating our ambitious vision,” Skybox said in a blog post.

But what else might Google do with satellites?


An aerial view of the Normandy American Memorial and Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, released by Skybox Imaging on May 6. (Skybox Imaging via AFP/Getty Images)

The Skybox buy is the latest in a series of “moonshot” acquisitions — Google chief executive Larry Page’s term for ambitious long-term projects — that underscore Google’s soaring ambitions.

Google recently bought Titan Aerospace, a company that makes solar-powered drones. Last year, the company announced Project Loon, which aims to bring the Web to the two-thirds of the world still offline by sending antennae-equipped balloons into the atmosphere to offer Internet access.

If Google wants to keep growing, reaching for the moon may be the only option, according to Business Insider’s Megan Rose Dickey:

“Google is basically in its third phase. It’s already mastered search and advertising, which were core desktop activities in the mid-2000s. Mobile came next, with its Android platform. … In order to keep growing, Google needs more people. Not just a few million more. Only hundreds of millions of new users will keep Google growing meaningfully. There is only one place that hundreds of millions of untapped users exist: offline.”

Like the proposed Loon balloons, Skybox could be used to beam Internet to the roughly 4.6 billion people across the globe that still don’t have it. Internet access could benefit them — but would also benefit Google, which profits when more people see the ads that generate most of its revenue.

Upping its cloud-computing game, which trails far behind Amazon (founded by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos), could be another goal for Google with the Skybox buy. As the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer points out, Skybox aims to create a “cloud for Earth.” Unlike other satellite companies that sell images and information about them, Skybox wants to create a massive archive of data about the Earth that includes historical weather reports and imagery from public satellites as well as its own. Inside that data cloud, companies could experiment and run their own software.

Meyer writes in the Atlantic:

If Google follows Skybox’s lead and creates its own cloud service for data about the Earth, then it might have a vanguard product: an industry-leading cloud service of its own. (Think how useful such a service would be not only to financial speculators or Big Agriculture, but to anyone running a global supply chain.)

 

Skybox Imaging HD Video of Mining Activity in Uşak, Western Turkey from Skybox Imaging on Vimeo.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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