Software in space race heats up: Microsoft eyes satellite image processing with Thales Alenia Space's digital image analyst

DeeperVision software coming to Azure Marketplace

Microsoft has buddied up with Thales Alenia Space as it continues to set up ground stations in its data centres as part of its Azure Orbital push.

The company is up against stiff competition from cloud rival AWS in the Ground-station-as-a-Service stakes. Last month Bezos' team dangled $1m of cloud credit before space startups as part of its Space Accelerator programme. AWS Ground Station itself became available ahead of Azure Orbital in 2019, leaving Microsoft with a bit to do to win the hearts and hydrazine of satellite operators.

To help it on its way, Microsoft has signed up Thales Alenia Space (TAS), a joint venture between Thales (67 per cent) and Leonardo (33 per cent). In 2020 TAS laid claim to revenues of €1.85bn and its 7,700 employees over ten countries.

Microsoft's interest in TAS in this instance is its DeeperVision system, which can perform inferencing on geospatial images to detect changes over time.

The process for Azure Orbital customers is relatively simple. Raw data is downlinked from a customer satellite and popped into an Azure Storage Blob. Assets can be pulled from that storage and processed with DeeperVision "in near real-time for business transformational insights," according to Tom Keane, Corporate Vice President for Azure Global.

When new imagery turns up, DeeperVision can compare it to earlier images to spot the differences. Users then focus on the relevant imagery rather than wade through swathes of downlinked data.

Microsoft cites "Change Detection, Site Monitoring, Situational Awareness, and Entity Recognition" as goals.

It's a useful carrot for customers pondering which GSaaS to sign up for. That said, applying machine learning and artificial intelligence (and their predecessors) to the field of satellite imagery has been around for almost as long as humans started getting bored of squinting at image after image downlinked from Earth-observing spacecraft.

Still, while AWS may be able to wave its SageMaker machine learning platform at those that select its service for ground station purposes, the more than 40 years of experience brought to bear by TAS on DeeperVision holds appeal. Once you've signed on Microsoft's dotted line. ®

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