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Startup Mapbox Makes Big Satellite Imagery Buy to Take On Google, Here Maps

The mapping wars heat up.


Ever search for something on Pinterest in a particular city? Go for a run with Strava? Still check in on Foursquare?

Beneath all of those apps is a mapping technology layer that enables the app to know precisely where it is. The company behind that layer, Mapbox, just got much better maps.

On Wednesday, the four-year-old startup announced the acquisition of three million square kilometers of satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe, one of the largest providers of aerial data. Mapbox is the first mapping customer to buy DigitalGlobe’s highest resolution data, from a satellite launched last year that gives the closest snapshot to date of the Earth from above.

“This is a huge investment for us,” said Eric Gundersen, CEO of Mapbox. “There’s a level of quality in terms of resolution that has never been available on the commercial market before.”

The companies would not share a price for the purchase. But DigitalGlobe sells its imagery at rates ranging from zero, for nonprofits like the Red Cross, to $20 a kilometer, said Kevin Bullock, the company’s director of product management.

In July, Mapbox closed a Series B round of $52.6 million led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, bringing its total funding close to $63 million.

Mapbox builds customizable mapping software for developers, who pay the company per use. It aspires to be the platform of choice for anyone building apps or other technologies embedded with software that needs location data. Its pitch is that it does not sell directly to consumers, so will not demand any consumer data in return. That’s in contrast to other mapping providers, namely Google and Here, Nokia’s former mapping division now owned by a consortium of German car makers.

The startup primarily sells to developers of apps, including Evernote and Github. But it plans to expand, particularly as more Internet-connected sensors attach to more devices and consumer goods, like wearables and drones. “Everybody is talking about the Internet of Things,” said Gundersen. “I don’t think anybody realizes how disruptive this is going to be.”

Should Mapbox make a dent in these other markets, it would be rivaling Google and Here, which also provide mapping data for apps (among them, reportedly, Facebook). Apple has also ramped up its internal mapping efforts, recently scooping up the startup Mapsense.

In aggregate, Mapbox’s new image data covers seven times the size of California. It comes from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite, which shot into orbit in 2014. The satellite company currently hosts some six billion square kilometers in archived imagery. It counts Google among its customers. “You probably have seen our imagery, but you may not have known it,” Bullock said.

Ten years ago, he added, you would need advanced geospatial training to decipher and deploy DigitalGlobe’s data. “Now, through the use of Mapbox technology,” Bullock said, “you can be a startup developer without knowledge of geospatial technology and, with a few lines of code, you can be up and running.”

Maps using data from DigitalGlobe’s latest satellite are more detailed than prior ones, thanks, in part, to the U.S. government. Last year, it lifted restrictions on how closely satellites could peer at the Earth. Previously, they could not shoot images with resolution of anything below 50 centimeters — that is, where each pixel on the map is a 50×50 centimeter box. Now, DigitalGlobe can shoot down to 30 centimeters.

Perhaps to assuage concerns about the creep factor of this level of precision, Gundersen sent over an email on Sunday after we spoke in person. The team had ordered around 27,000 square kilometers of footage around Manzanillo, Mexico, where Hurricane Patricia struck. With its partner, OpenStreetMap, the company opened up the maps for the World Bank, the Red Cross and the Mexican government.

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