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TED2018

Will Marshall: The mission to create a searchable database of Earth's surface

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What if you could search the surface of the Earth the same way you search the internet? Will Marshall and his team at Planet use the world's largest fleet of satellites to image the entire Earth every day. Now they're moving on to a new project: using AI to index all the objects on the planet over time -- which could make ships, trees, houses and everything else on Earth searchable, the same way you search Google. He shares a vision for how this database can become a living record of the immense physical changes happening across the globe. "You can't fix what you can't see," Marshall says. "We want to give people the tools to see change and take action."

- Space scientist
At Planet, Will Marshall leads overall strategy for commercializing new geospatial data and analytics that are disrupting agriculture, mapping, energy, the environment and other vertical markets. Full bio

Four years ago, here at TED,
00:12
I announced Planet's Mission 1:
00:15
to launch a fleet of satellites
00:17
that would image
the entire Earth, every day,
00:19
and to democratize access to it.
00:22
The problem we were trying
to solve was simple.
00:25
Satellite imagery you find online is old,
typically years old,
00:27
yet human activity was happening
on days and weeks and months,
00:30
and you can't fix what you can't see.
00:34
We wanted to give people the tools
to see that change and take action.
00:37
The beautiful Blue Marble image,
taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972
00:40
had helped humanity become aware
that we're on a fragile planet.
00:45
And we wanted to take it
to the next level,
00:49
to give people the tools
to take action, to take care of it.
00:51
Well, after many
Apollo projects of our own,
00:55
launching the largest fleet
of satellites in human history,
00:59
we have reached our target.
01:03
Today, Planet images
the entire Earth, every single day.
01:06
Mission accomplished.
01:09
(Applause)
01:11
Thank you.
01:13
It's taken 21 rocket launches --
01:15
this animation makes it look
really simple -- it was not.
01:19
And we now have
over 200 satellites in orbit,
01:25
downlinking their data to 31 ground
stations we built around the planet.
01:28
In total, we get 1.5 million 29-megapixel
images of the Earth down each day.
01:32
And on any one location
of the Earth's surface,
01:38
we now have on average
more than 500 images.
01:41
A deep stack of data,
documenting immense change.
01:44
And lots of people are using this imagery.
01:49
Agricultural companies are using it
to improve farmers' crop yields.
01:51
Consumer-mapping companies are using it
to improve the maps you find online.
01:57
Governments are using it
for border security
02:01
or helping with disaster response
after floods and fires and earthquakes.
02:03
And lots of NGOs are using it.
02:08
So, for tracking
and stopping deforestation.
02:09
Or helping to find the refugees
fleeing Myanmar.
02:13
Or to track all the activities
in the ongoing crisis in Syria,
02:16
holding all sides accountable.
02:21
And today, I'm pleased
to announce Planet stories.
02:24
Anyone can go online to planet.com
02:28
open an account and see
all of our imagery online.
02:30
It's a bit like Google Earth,
except it's up-to-date imagery,
02:34
and you can see back through time.
02:37
You can compare any two days
02:41
and see the dramatic changes
that happen around our planet.
02:42
Or you can create a time lapse
through the 500 images that we have
02:46
and see that change
dramatically over time.
02:50
And you can share these over social media.
02:54
It's pretty cool.
02:57
(Applause)
02:58
Thank you.
03:00
We initially created this tool
for news journalists,
03:02
who wanted to get unbiased information
about world events.
03:04
But now we've opened it up
for anyone to use,
03:07
for nonprofit or personal uses.
03:09
And we hope it will give people the tools
to find and see the changes on the planet
03:12
and take action.
03:17
OK, so humanity now has this database
of information about the planet,
03:18
changing over time.
03:23
What's our next mission, what's Mission 2?
03:24
In short, it's space plus AI.
03:26
What we're doing
with artificial intelligence
03:29
is finding the objects
in all the satellite images.
03:31
The same AI tools that are used
to find cats in videos online
03:35
can also be used to find
information on our pictures.
03:39
So, imagine if you can say,
this is a ship, this is a tree,
03:43
this is a car, this is a road,
this is a building, this is a truck.
03:46
And if you could do that
for all of the millions of images
03:51
coming down per day,
03:54
then you basically create a database
03:55
of all the sizable objects
on the planet, every day.
03:57
And that database is searchable.
03:59
So that's exactly what we're doing.
04:02
Here's a prototype, working on our API.
04:04
This is Beijing.
04:06
So, imagine if we wanted
to count the planes in the airport.
04:08
We select the airport,
04:11
and it finds the planes in today's image,
04:13
and finds the planes
in the whole stack of images before it,
04:15
and then outputs this graph of all
the planes in Beijing airport over time.
04:18
Of course, you could do this
for all the airports around the world.
04:23
And let's look here
in the port of Vancouver.
04:27
So, we would do the same,
but this time we would look for vessels.
04:30
So, we zoom in on Vancouver,
we select the area,
04:33
and we search for ships.
04:38
And it outputs where all the ships are.
04:40
Now, imagine how useful this would be
to people in coast guards
04:42
who are trying to track
and stop illegal fishing.
04:45
See, legal fishing vessels
04:48
transmit their locations
using AIS beacons.
04:50
But we frequently find ships
that are not doing that.
04:53
The pictures don't lie.
04:56
And so, coast guards could use that
04:58
and go and find
those illegal fishing vessels.
05:00
And soon we'll add
not just ships and planes
05:02
but all the other objects,
05:04
and we can output data feeds
05:05
of those locations
of all these objects over time
05:07
that can be integrated digitally
from people's work flows.
05:10
In time, we could get
more sophisticated browsers
05:13
that people pull in
from different sources.
05:16
But ultimately, I can imagine us
abstracting out the imagery entirely
05:18
and just having a queryable
interface to the Earth.
05:23
Imagine if we could just ask,
05:26
"Hey, how many houses
are there in Pakistan?
05:27
Give me a plot of that versus time."
05:30
"How many trees are there in the Amazon
05:32
and can you tell me the locations
of the trees that have been felled
05:34
between this week and last week?"
05:37
Wouldn't that be great?
05:39
Well, that's what
we're trying to go towards,
05:40
and we call it "Queryable Earth."
05:42
So, Planet's Mission 1 was
to image the whole planet every day
05:44
and make it accessible.
05:48
Planet's Mission 2 is to index
all the objects on the planet over time
05:50
and make it queryable.
05:54
Let me leave you with an analogy.
05:56
Google indexed what's on the internet
and made it searchable.
05:58
Well, we're indexing what's on the Earth
and making it searchable.
06:03
Thank you very much.
06:06
(Applause)
06:07

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About the speaker:

Will Marshall - Space scientist
At Planet, Will Marshall leads overall strategy for commercializing new geospatial data and analytics that are disrupting agriculture, mapping, energy, the environment and other vertical markets.

Why you should listen

Will Marshall is the co-founder and CEO of Planet. Prior to Planet, he was a Scientist at NASA/USRA where he worked on missions "LADEE" and "LCROSS," served as co-principal investigator on PhoneSat, and was the technical lead on research projects in space debris remediation.

Marshall received his PhD in Physics from the University of Oxford and his Masters in Physics with Space Science and Technology from the University of Leicester. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at George Washington University and Harvard.

More profile about the speaker
Will Marshall | Speaker | TED.com