Might Better Satellite Imaging Analytics Reveal More About North Korea?

Published on Author Christian von Hassell



In class on Friday, we talked about the limits of satellite imaging in context of learning more about North Korean industry and agriculture. Of course, there is no real substitute for intelligence gathered at the ground. However, a recent flurry of satellite imaging and data analysis startups at least suggests that many are not satisfied with the status quo.

Google made headlines last year with its $500million acquisition of Skybox, a nearly full service satellite design, imaging, and analytics firm. Many more companies have emerged in the sector, like OmniEarth and Planet.

One fairly new firm – Orbital Insight – has recently received some strong press coverage, upon the completion of its first major fundraising round. Backed by Sequoia and Bloomberg Beta, Orbital Insight focuses solely on analytics and does not operate its own fleet of satellites like Skybox. In fact, it predominantly uses open, government sourced data. Up until now, we have lacked the algorithms and image recognition technology to fully utilize the sea of data we have gathered from the sky.


Orbital Insight’s website notes it has has successfully built products that can forecast crop harvests based on its analysis satellite imagery. However, it does not include what other information it uses for its computations. Nonetheless, as these tools improve, we might find ourselves increasingly aware of happenings in North Korea. A better grasp on crop yields and industrial capacity can undoubtedly improve other nations’ bargaining ability with the hermit nation. It even might help the hopeful – and sadly, very hopeless –  few develop better plans for reunification.




2 Responses to Might Better Satellite Imaging Analytics Reveal More About North Korea?

  1. There are both benefits and concerns with the recent increase of satellite imaging firms. On one hand it is extremely beneficial to use the data to gain information on agriculture to increase efficiency and productivity, but on the other hand how can we know that the satellites aren’t being used for other things such as surveillance.

  2. As far as I know – I’m not current, but in the past talked with people in intelligence agencies – the resolution of commercial satellites is quite low. So the sort of information you can get from them was not great. That may now be different, as Google Earth can show individual cars.

    Unfortunately in NK the sorts of things you want to know (what’s going on among the leadership) aren’t amenable to remote observation, or even observable by the man on the street.