OK, I must admit that I was a little skeptical of global mapping and satellite technology at first. I mean, how in the world can you enter a couple of data points into a device and have it tell you where you are, where you want to go, and the quickest way to get there? In the Boy Scouts, we busted our humps to try to chart points on maps using compasses and constellations, and even then the results were somewhat iffy. And that was years ago. Ask me today about constellations and I will probably give you the same look my dog gives me when I tell her not to drink from the toilet.
Whether you use Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Maps or Microsoft’s (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Bing technology to chart your points, chances are extremely good that these giants are getting their imagery from DigitalGlobe (Nasdaq: DGI ) , and chances are that DigitalGlobe is going to be making waves in the satellite imagery space (yes, that was in fact a pun) for many years to come.
What’s the story?
DigitalGlobe is a fascinating story for sure. Founded in 1993 as WorldView Imaging, the company morphed into EarthWatch before becoming DigitalGlobe in 2002. In 2001 WorldView launched QuickBird, the world’s highest resolution commercial satellite and this would prove to be a very pivotal point in their short history. The success of QuickBird enabled the company to focus on developing extensive partnerships in both the government and commercial markets. One relationship that came from this was an agreement to provide imagery to Keyhole Corporation. A nice deal at the time for sure, but when Keyhole was subsequently acquired by Google in 2004, DigitalGlobe stepped into a whole new world of possibilities, as the developments of Google Earth and other online mapping services began to take hold.
In late 2008 and early 2009, DigitalGlobe announced that it had extended its service agreement with Google to provide the imagery for Google Maps and Google Earth. These applications, thanks to mobile technology, have become embedded in our everyday lives. DigitalGlobe also established a new partnership with Microsoft to provide the imagery for the Virtual Earth platform, better known today as Bing Maps. Additional agreements with companies like Oracle, NAVTEQ, deCarta, Telogis and Nokia are giving the company multiple opportunities to continue getting their technology out to consumers -- which will help perpetuate an endless cycle of improvements as demand grows. The way I see it, as long as we have Planet Earth, DigitalGlobe should be in business for a long time to come.
Four corners of the globe
Today DigitalGlobe continues to focus on expanding its horizons and capabilities as they grow their constellation of satellites in orbit. To date, the company has three satellites in orbit -- QuickBird, World View I, and World View II -- which provide the timeliest and most up-to-date high resolution imagery in the market today. Add to that their aerial capabilities and vast ImageLibrary, and you can see how DigitalGlobe may just have all four corners of the global market in their sights.
The company also just locked up a contract with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency worth about $3.5 billion. Perhaps just as interesting is that their main competitor, GeoEye (Nasdaq: GEOY ) landed a very similar deal with the same agency. This is pretty normal though as governments almost always prefer to rely upon multiple vendors so they don’t have all their eggs in one basket. While the two companies are very similar, DigitalGlobe is a larger company with more history under its belt. Nevertheless, GeoEye is also a company to keep an eye on in the sector.
One concern is that DigitalGlobe is still very new as a publicly traded company, having only completed their IPO in mid-2009.This can make it pretty tough to value the stock as they are really just getting into the realm of cash-flow positive territory. As they're trading at a lofty 42-times trailing earnings, I think you'll agree we're not necessarily talking about a value proposition here. But certainly, the company is growing, and if they continue to ink deals with life-changing companies like Google and Microsoft, their $1.4 billion market cap will seem miniscule years from now.
A Foolish final thought
The bottom line is we are talking about a growth story here and one that I think has a lot of chapters to go. With an industry leading constellation of satellites complemented by their aerial support and ImageLibrary, DigitalGlobe is the company with the technology and the know-how to show us the way home (and elsewhere), one map at a time.