Analyzing a Company Using Data From Space

Discussion Questions

  1. Carefully read the following short article about how satellite images can be used to analyze a company, even without the company’s permission or cooperation.
  2. The article mentions counting cars in parking lots to estimate sales at companies such as Lowe’s and Target.  Think of at least two other innovative applications of this idea that would be useful from an Operations and Supply Chain Management view.
  3. What are the downsides to using this technology?  Are there ethical issues that might be important?  Might a company, realizing that competitors are using the technology, use the technology to their advantage? 

February 20, 2014, 5:56 PM ET

New Way to Analyze a Company: What Does it Look Like From Space?

ByDoug Cameron

An artist’s rendering of an Iridium Near Earth satellite

Analysts covering the defense industry are well-versed in the profitability of satellites made by the companies they monitor, and now one is using them as a springboard to launch proprietary research.

Howard Rubel, a veteran of the sector at Jefferies LLC, has used snaps from space to figure out where Gulfstream Aerospace is in developing its next line of business jets, a subject that’s exercised fellow analysts and secured precious little detail from the company.

The business jet market is in turnaround mode helped by sales of high-end, continent-hopping planes such as Gulfstream’s G650 and planned new planes from rivals including Bombardier Inc.

Gulfstream parent General Dynamics Inc. has been loath to share what it plans to do next with its jet line-up, so Mr. Rubel turned to satellite imagery of the unit’s main production facility in Savannah, Ga.

Aided and abetted by financial records, Mr. Rubel reckons after scanning the photos that Gulfstream’s expanding more than previously disclosed to tee up one or two new jets based on the G650’s technology that could be unveiled as early as later this year.

Jefferies contracted Colorado-based DigitalGlobe Inc. – a company covered by Mr. Rubel — to provide satellite images of Gulfstream’s expansion of its facility at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport taken over the past decade. Looking at the march of the factories, aircraft ramps and other facilities that now surround the airport led him to the conclusion that Gulfstream is close to unveiling new jets.

Mr. Rubel says he’ll let the report published late Wednesday speak for itself, but General Dynamics Chief Executive Phebe Novakovic offered a little more detail on the Gulfstream plan during an industry conference Thursday.

“We will introduce new airplanes,” she said, adding that they wouldn’t be unveiled until they could roll out of the hangar under their own steam. No stranger to oblique references on earnings’ calls, Ms. Novakovic said customers and investors would find them “very, very wholesome”.

Back at Mission Control, Mr. Rubel reckons Gulfstream is working to update its smaller G450 and G550 models in anticipation of competition from new jets being launched by Bombardier. General Dynamics declined comment.

DigitalGlobe is providing corporate intelligence, helping retail chains such as Lowe’s and Target to analyze sales by counting cars in parking lots. Market-intelligence firms are increasingly sending drones and helicopters aloft to peer at everything from oil storage tanks to corn fields in an effort to glean information that might provide traders with an edge.

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