Better, cheaper and greener than using satellite images: weather balloon images

The design/build company I work for doesn’t have a drone, so we rely heavily on Google satellite images of the homes we’re working on. But sometimes the level of detail leaves something to be desired, and/or we only have access to old images that do not take into account recent landscape updates.

A New York-based startup called Near Space Labs offers a more affordable solution than paying for custom satellite imagery. The company uses weather balloons, which they call Swifts.

These Swifts are not only an order of magnitude cheaper than satellites, but also have a much smaller carbon footprint, as they don’t need to be launched in a rocket. Instead, they drift noiselessly up to 65,000 feet into the stratosphere and snap photos of the earth below in shocking 10cm resolution.

“The stratosphere gives us a better vantage point for a much lower price than airplanes and satellites,” the company writes. “We also get around the clouds more easily.”

“The biggest surprise for me when I joined Near Space Labs,” says David Raleigh, the company’s data engineering manager, “was that we were getting images that could rival satellite companies at during the first six months of my stay there”.

“From a stratospheric perspective, we can cover a city in a single flight,” the company writes. “For reference, in one flight, we can capture all five boroughs of New York. After a flight, we automatically process all the data and upload it to the cloud, so you can only access it a few hours after it’s capture.”

Their prices are incredibly low, starting at just $50 for a square kilometer and going all the way down to $10/m². km if you need 390 km2 or more. What the company has yet to do a good job of is listing the areas it has already covered; it’s unclear if you have to order them to capture footage from a specific region, and/or if there will possibly be a menu you can choose from.

If you have a project from last year that you are proud of, take a few minutes to send it to the Core77 Design Awards 2022. We have 18 practice categories, and for this year we have a special sustainability award for all projects that have a beneficial environmental impact. See for details and times.