It’s been two weeks since ConsenSys entered the satellite business. It befuddled the company’s observers to see a blockchain company, tasked with promoting Ethereum’s use, lay down what was likely hundreds of millions of dollars to buy one of the world’s premiere space startups. But the answer might lie in what ConsenSys can do for data and information, not just blockchain technology or Ethereum.
However, this purchase by ConsenSys does something far more revolutionary. Should blockchain see mass adoption in government, industry, and by the public, then which blockchain (or blockchains) will be the most accepted? Which blockchain will hold the most immutable and trusted data about land registrations, car ownership, supply chains, birth records and professional certificates, etc.? Considering the wealth of data the company just absorbed, ConsenSys might have just established Ethereum as the inevitable blockchain of record.
I suggested at the time that ConsenSys was piggybacking off the idea of another blockchain startup — SpaceChain — hoping to make blockchain a foundational element of commercial space infrastructure. I would not take that suggestion back, but there is something more immediate ConsenSys might be doing.
There is an axiom the industry needs to instill that applies here:
Blockchain doesn’t necessarily need cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency doesn’t necessarily need blockchain.
Blockchain has a tremendous number of potential use cases beyond finance, precisely because it’s a new kind of more efficient database.
Satellites Hold Critical Data for New Services
The nanosatellite boom — led by companies like Planetary Resources, Terra Bella (formerly Skybox), Planet (formerly Planet Labs), and private launch services from SpaceX — produces direct-to-market satellite imaging and communication. Consider that Google actually bought Terra Bella in 2014 for $500 million, before flipping it to Planet for about $500 million in February 2017. As part of that latter agreement, Google got equity in Planet and agreed to be a customer for Planet’s satellite services for the next five years. To give you an idea, a Terra Bella investor once said the company’s satellites were processing “one terabyte of data daily.”
Google made the original deal and maintained its relationship with Terra Bella for one reason: Data. Specifically, Consensys’ target might be Planetary Resources’ data-processing power. Ellen Huet speculated something similar in the weeks after Google’s buyout of Terra Bella back in 2014.
At a conference in 2017, Planet’s CRO Andrew Wild said they were taking raw data from their satellites, then converting it into something actionable as part of the “insights economy” and were already having “deep conversations with all sorts of customers on all sorts of verticals.” In fact, that 2017 panel even predicted the inevitable “vertical integration” of satellite firms with big data outfits.
Layers Upon Layers
“It’s like a lasagna. Layer, layer, layer. Depending on where you are, you may have different tastes,” Frank Salzgeber, director of the European Space Agency’s Business Incubator Centres (BIC) told me in 2016 at the Slush tech conference in Finland. “The future will be putting that in the cloud, SAP Hana, then making a cool logic store out of it, and make micropayments” to access it.
In 2013, Google began collecting imagery from the Landsat 8 satellite for use in Google Earth and Google Maps. That sort of data has also been critical in helping Google’s self-driving car prototypes navigate the roads, among other advanced uses by company projects. Google’s 2015 launch of Project Sunroof used these photos to take a census of the number of homes using private solar panels, estimating minutieae such as the best location for installation in as part of urban development and community planning.
Immediate Use Cases: Land Registries and Data Depositories
Google’s data could be critically used to help the expansion of microgrids, which are a potential use case for recording energy trades on blockchain. There are already a few pilots focused on this.
But there are some cases observers are even more certain about. Several countries — including the Netherlands, India, and Sweden — are looking to blockchain to keep better land records. Records can be kept up to date on the condition of land and record changes from orbit. This spatial data can be combined with other records and registration properly on a single blockchain. Arup Dasgupta covers this pretty well in a write-up from late 2017, where he highlights the geospatial implications of blockchain incorporation, highlighting the Swedish and Indian cases pretty well. He brings attention to one protocol, FOAM, that boasts it will be ‘the future of proof of location.’
Co-founder Kristoffer Josefsson calls his project a “mash-up between a Bloomberg terminal and Google Maps,” and yet he isn’t the only game in town. GeoUnderground, which developed its platform using none other than the Google Maps API, is already inking deals with the likes of Geospatial Corporation for “underground and above-ground asset management and location needs.”
ConsenSys Can Automatically Fill Blockchains with Authoritative Data
With all things considered, ConsenSys is positioned well to convert all this raw data into actionable and certifiable insights. Through Ethereum smart contracts, geospatial information can be recorded and confirmed on the Ethereum blockchain — or any number of second layers or sidechains — then relied upon for public record or private business. Registrations, land assessments, geolocation, timestamped satellite imagery and photographic maps of on-the-ground or underground assets are suddenly a matter of chained public record. And which chain will people turn to for that authority? Ethereum.
Google and other data giants are not exactly about to be outflanked, but a move like this bodes well to put blockchain at the center of new and refurbished forms of informational and technological infrastructure in the very near future. Add to this ConsenSys now controls a treasury of data it can sell, and it has expanded its portfolio of products and services pretty nicely — a smart move for any company, blockchain or not.
Going further, as we continue analyzing this unexpected move and perhaps read other surprising headlines, we will likely have a more mature view of the direction blockchain is going. Beyond a long period of hype over this technology and its accompanying cryptocurrencies or tokens, blockchain is ultimately a newer kind of database that might replace or complement traditional databases, depending on suitability.
And who knows. Those micropayments that Mr. Salzgeber mentioned? Perhaps they will be in crypto.