In recent years, Amazon.com has pressed beyond its e-commerce roots to plant a flag in cloud computing, groceries and entertainment, disrupting established players along the way. Next, it is eyeing an emerging market in space.
At a conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, the company announced a new business unit called AWS Ground Station, which is focused on helping organisations rapidly process the massive streams of data that are beamed back to Earth every day by satellites. Rather than build its own satellite dishes and ground stations, the company has brokered an exclusive "multiyear strategic business agreement" with Bethesda-based defence contractor Lockheed Martin, which manufactures and operates satellites for the US military. (Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The goal, executives say, is to make it cheaper for businesses to access space.
"If you look at the challenges people have with putting up satellites, it's very cost-prohibitive to put ground networks in," said Rick Ambrose, who heads Lockheed Martin's space business. "We think this is a support that significantly lowers those entry costs for folks, especially if you're a start-up company or university."
Lockheed Martin, a Beltway defence contractor that gets most of its revenue from the government, has gone to great lengths to position itself as a technology innovator in the defence and space industries.
Amazon Web Services grew out of the back-office operations of Amazon.com, a West Coast tech company, before selling its service to business and government organisations. It eventually became Amazon's fastest-growing unit and is trying to expand its business with US defence and intelligence agencies.
Lockheed's Ambrose declined to describe the specific terms of the two companies' business relationship but said, "we're both sharing the economic benefits."
Under the terms of the partnership, Amazon's computing power and data storage services will be integrated into Lockheed Martin's worldwide antenna network, which is called Verge.
The two companies are trying to appeal to a growing commercial spaceflight industry. Elon Musk's SpaceX is working to launch more than 10,000 satellites into low Earth orbit, intended to provide high-speed Internet access to remote corners of the Earth. A Softbank-funded company called OneWeb is planning a similar undertaking.
Meanwhile a growing start-up community is already finding creative ways to monetise satellites. The market research firm Bryce Space and Technology estimates space companies have attracted a collective $13.9 billion from investors since 2000. The start-ups are enabled by new, smaller satellites known as "CubeSats," which can be as small as shoe boxes.
They include DigitalGlobe, a satellite-imaging company that went public in 2009, which has said publicly it has signed up to use AWS' Ground Station service. The company had previously relied on a different Amazon service called AWS Snowmobile, which would use mobile data centres contained in 45-foot-long, tractor-trailers to transfer data.
Newer start-ups include a Herndon-based satellite analytics company called HawkEye 360, which wants to use a network of small satellites to track illicit nautical shipping pipelines across the globe.
Because smaller satellites tend to circle the planet closer to the atmosphere in "low Earth orbit," they might only pass by an individual satellite dish or ground station for a few minutes at a time. Building the ability to capture data from those satellites as they zip overhead is extremely expensive, something that makes it hard for start-ups to get a foot in the door.
"If you're a new operator, like a small start-up wanting to build CubeSats, laying out that kind of money to build out a ground centre is a huge ask," said Brian Weeden, a space operations expert with the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organisation.
Amazon and Lockheed are hoping to lessen that load by operating a global ground station network of their own and renting it out to organisations of all sorts. Amazon brings to the table its global network of data centres and the processing power enabled by its complex cloud-computing algorithms, and Lockheed has an extensive network of satellite ground stations courtesy of its government-funded space business.
AWS chief executive Andy Jassy said at a conference this week that the Ground Station service would reduce the amount of time it takes to transfer data from a satellite to a data center from "a matter of hours or days to a matter of seconds," according to media reports.
"It's only today with the power of cloud computing can we pull off the processing speeds to do this," Lockheed's Ambrose said.
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