Planet Labs Raises $52 Million From Yuri Milner To Build The Biggest (Little) Flock Of Satellites

Satellite startup Planet Labs is just on the brink of launching the largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites into orbit, with 28 of its units expected to head into space next month. To prepare for that launch, and to expand its team to meet the challenges that come from processing a huge amount of imaging data on a day-to-day basis, the company has raised $52 million in new funding.

The new financing was led by Yuri Milner and included participation from new investors Industry Ventures, Felicis Ventures, Lux Capital, and Ray Rothrock. The company’s existing investors include Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Capricorn Investment Group, O‚ÄôReilly Alpha Tech Ventures (OATV), Founders Fund, First Round Capital, Innovation Endeavors, Data Collective, and AME Cloud Ventures.

With the new funding, Planet Labs has raised $65 million altogether.

Planet Labs hopes to change the way Earth imaging is done with the introduction of ultra-small satellites, which it calls “doves,” that circle the planet in low orbit. The units are a lot cheaper to make and deploy, and since they circle a lot closer to the Earth, they can produce higher-resolution images than their larger, more expensive counterparts.

The downside is that Planet Labs’ doves don’t live as long — they typically drift down into the atmosphere and burn up after just one to three years. But the company believes it will be able to produce and maintain a large enough fleet over time to provide imaging that is higher quality and updated much more frequently than what’s available today.

Planet Labs has already had some major accomplishments in 2013, launching four of its doves into orbit so far this year. That includes Dove 1 and Dove 2, which were launched in the spring, and Dove 3 and Dove 4, which were sent into orbit just last month.

Its next big event is expected next month, when its first constellation of 28 satellites — dubbed Flock 1 — is launched into orbit. The date for that launch is now set for January 13, after a short delay from its original December launch plan.

With the launch of Flock 1, Planet Labs will have a “torrent of new data coming in,” co-founder Robbie Schingler told me. The company is expecting terabytes of imaging data each day, which then needs to be processed and normalized before being made available to clients.

To deal with all of that data, the company is looking to hire engineers to help build out its imaging and software side of its business, in an effort to automate as much of the process as possible. The team currently has about 40 employees, but will be expanding that to meet demand for its imaging services.

That’s a big reason for the big round of funding. As for its interest in having Yuri Milner on board, Planet Labs co-founder William Marshall says the team had a great rapport with the Russian entrepreneur and investor.

“On a personal note, the founders got along really well with him,” Marshall said. “He’s a physicist, and we’re all physicists… and we had a great personal vibe.”

More than that, though, the founders said that Milner’s belief in “big ideas” was also attractive. Milner, of course, has invested in companies like Facebook and Twitter. In the same way that those companies helped to democratize communications and information with software, Planet Labs is hoping to provide more access to information about the planet we live on.

“We care about providing open access and tools around this data and information,” Schingler said. “This is about democratizing information about our planet.”

Planet Labs hopes to do that by providing affordable imaging data not to the military-industrial complex, but to organizations monitoring natural resources, agriculture, and for mapping purposes. It’s a pretty lofty goal, but it fits in with the credo of doing well by doing good.

That said, it’s not the only microsatellite company out there — Skybox Imaging, which has raised $91 million from investors that include Canaan Partners, Norwest Venture Partners, CrunchFund, Khosla Ventures, and Bessemer Venture Partners, just launched its first satellite into orbit.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Milner would join the Planet Labs board.