Innovation happens when people fearlessly try to do something that no one has done before. Very few people actually act on their crazy ideas that “should work”, and really disrupt the way things are done. PlanetLabs seems to have done just that.
Cubesats are tiny little satellites (cubes as small as 10cm on a side, sometimes called nanosatellites), and they used to be limited to student-type experiments. The idea is to make them cheaply using as many commercial off-the-shelf components as possible. Because they are so cheap, and because you can get several of them to work together, you can accept a higher risk of failure, making the entire mission cheaper. Launching these satellites is usually quite cheap as well, since they can usually ride “piggyback” on other launches. Dedicated launches are not required.
With time, technologies to improve pointing accuracy, power systems, and communications capabilities have begun to make these platforms useful to do jobs that would only be done by much larger satellites in the past. As an example, Canadian scientists recently launched a contribution to an international constellation of satellites for doing astronomy from low Earth orbit called BRITE.
Planet Labs is not only taking advantage of all these developments but they are also attempting to change the culture of opening Earth observation data from space to everyone. Once complete, their system will allow for medium-resolution imagery (3 to 5 metres), and all the data will be publicly available to anyone. Because there will be so many nanosatellites in orbit once the constellation is complete, revisiting a site of interest will be possible with short delays.
Farming, natural disasters, deforestation, forest fires; these are all examples of uses of this data. The idea is that when a lot of data that is regularly and frequently updated is made widely available, new uses will be discovered, new commercial opportunities for using the data will be created, and human kind will ultimately benefit.