Rumour reaches us from a European source that Google plans to close down its SkyBox imaging division. We are not sure if it’s good quality intel, but what certainly IS true, is that when Google paid $500 million for a start-up that had some design concepts for Cubesats that are shared by dozens of companies around the world, experienced space watchers eyebrows’ twitched right off….
It may well seem that Google came to realise that even the power of its mighty advertising sales algorithm cannot change the fundamental laws of physics and economics and that the cost of getting SkyBox images into Google Earth is just not worth it.
This has been a perennially underperforming sector. The US Government and more recently the Chinese government have underwritten some imaging projects for national security purposes, but a commercial market is yet to emerge at scale.
But perhaps there is more at play here. It seems that Google and Facebook regard space much as Ronnie Reagan regarded nuclear escalation with Russia – draw your opponent into becoming distracted with unwieldy financial commitments and perhaps he topples over.
The constant stream of hot air coming out of Silicon Valley is certainly wearing. We have all seen drone projects come around every seven years or so and yet still there is no sense that anyone can overcome the obvious safety, mass, power, quality and cost efficiency barriers to putting a scaled communications infrastructure onto a fleet of constantly circling drones.
The Low Earth Orbit sector is equally bemusing. $10bn was lost in the 90s when even titans of technology like Bill Gates were suckered by satellite manufacturers into funding white elephant projects which promptly failed. This time around the outcome is interesting. Google and Facebook stepped back from funding OneWeb, leaving a rag bag of manufacturers with challenged business models trawling up and down Wall Street in their desperate hunt for that last greater fool.
Perhaps Silicon Valley has wised up after all, but not fast enough for Google to avoid wasting $500m+ on some Cubesat designs that any one of 1,000 postgrad students could have come up with.