MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Adding to an aerial fleet that includes high-altitude balloons and unmanned drones, Google said Tuesday it will buy startup satellite maker Skybox Imaging for $500 million, as the tech giant pursues new ways of gathering data and delivering it to Internet users around the world.
Skybox, launched five years ago by three Stanford grad students, is among the first in a wave of new startups that are using advances in computer software and hardware to build smaller, cheaper satellites. While other companies provide high-resolution photos from orbiting satellites, Skybox claims to be the first commercial venture to provide high-resolution video.
Google said Skybox satellites can provide up-to-date images to help improve the accuracy of Google Maps and related services. Over time, Google also hopes to use Skybox's engineering talent and technology for disaster relief and for Google's long-term project to provide Internet service in remote parts of the world.
Skybox, which had raised $91 million from investors including Khosla Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners, has also pursued an unusual commercial project to develop a massive archive of images and other satellite data stored in a computer "cloud" that other companies can mine for useful information about geologic formations, construction projects, traffic patterns and other activities.
While Google didn't comment on that effort Tuesday, the Internet giant has been expanding its business by offering all kinds of cloud information services to individual and commercial customers.
Bessemer partner David Cowan said he thinks Skybox caught the eye of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin because both have a deep interest in aerospace technology as well as data science. But he added that Skybox engineers are "much more interested in innovating on data algorithms than on building a new satellite chassis."
Skybox is the latest of several aerospace ventures for Google, which has been quietly hiring satellite engineers and technical experts while eyeing companies in the sector.
Google has previously made headlines for field-testing a fleet of helium balloons equipped with radio transmitters, in a project aimed at delivering Internet service to remote parts of the world. Earlier this year, Google also bought Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico maker of unmanned drones, which Google hoped to use both for aerial mapping and its Internet access project.
Archrival Facebook is working on the early stages of its own plan to help people in developing nations get Internet access from the sky. Facebook reportedly had eyed Titan Aerospace before buying a British drone-maker, Ascenta, to help with its effort.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.