Planetary Resources, with its roster of all-star billionaire investors and audacious business plan of mining asteroids has garnered significant press since emerging into the public’s eye. My business crush on this company is comparable to my 2001 infatuation with Salesforce.com; this will be one of the most disruptive commercial ventures created in the next ten years.
There are ten factors that predict how disruptive an invention, activity or business can be;
- Automation: Is a previously difficult process now made easy to repeat? [4/5]
PR is planning to search for and identify near-Earth asteroids (“NEAs”). This activity is currently pursued by many groups independently with common data repositories, but trust that this team will look to automate this detection to the highest degree possible. Just like Craig Ventner’s team sequencing the genome; this team will automate the detection and identification of valuable NEAs.
- Calculation: Is it possible to conceive of or calculate previously unknown values or do so with greater speed and accuracy? [0/5]
While I’m sure PR will be best in class here; I don’t think it is an area where they will score very high.
- Communication: Does the activity improve the speed and accuracy of communication? [4/5]
PR has intimated that their Arkyd series of satellites and their successors could serve as communication relays between Earth-bound receivers and outer space. NASA could use such receivers to supplement their current communication with existing outer space probes. Just like Western Union telegraph poles crisscrossing the great plains; these satellites will change the speed and accuracy of outer space communications.
- Measurement / Instrumentation: Does the disruption improve the ability to measure, study or make known the previously unknown? [5/5]
NEAs are known to mankind; we know they are potentially incredibly valuable and also potentially deadly to our planet. However, we don’t know much more beyond that. Any NASA report that discusses NEAs invariably talks about how such activities are dramatically underfunded. By quantifying and measuring the number, composition and harvest-ability of asteroids, PR will change the way we look at that part of the solar system nearest to Earth.
- Mechanization: Can a process previously driven by personnel be made repeatable by machinery? [2/5]
Our usage of robotics and drones has surged in the past decade. When rumors of PR’s business model began to circulate in mid-April; no one imagined an Apollo or shuttle-style team launching into space and wrangling asteroids. We pictured the one part of PR’s business that is still the most distant; using probes and droids to identify and move asteroids into position where their resources can be easily made use of.
- Miniaturization: Is the disruption dramatically changing the size of a component? [1/5]
Since the first flights by the Wright brothers, any activity which involves leaving the surface of the Earth has a ruthless discipline towards weight. Even with the huge advances made possible by Elon Musk’s team at SpaceX, miniaturization will be a key component to ensuring the success of the Arkyd line of satellites.
- Simplification: Does the disruption reduce the complexity of an activity? [1/5]
To the extent that someone in search of orbital resources in 2012 will be able to call PR, rather than assemble a list of satellites from various state agencies, then yes, simplification here will be significant.
- Standardization: Does the activity create platforms of standardization? [3/5]
Standardization in this phase of innovation and invention is as much about creating a common language of describing what you are doing. In the Wright’s letters with other early aeronautic pioneers they spent as much time crafting a common language to describe their activities as they did comparing the resulting measurements. This will be a huge area where the creation of PR enables disruption. Further , standardization of the designs and components of the Arkyd satellite will allow new advances in how these systems are built and used.
- Transportation: Does the disruption enable a change in the distance and speed of transport? [5/5]
You can’t get much further away than NEAs (despite the fact that they are ‘near’). PR will address moving large quantities vast distances. The implications are significant; it is foreseeable that the freight charges per ton for the right NEA could be less than current ocean-going shipping costs on-planet.
- Weaponization: Can the disruptive activity potentially be weaponized? [5/5]
Disruption often comes at the end of a muzzle; it is important to understand the potential destructive capability of a PR-controlled NEA. For PR, this will be an important aspect to navigate from a socio-political standpoint.
With ten categories, each judged on a five-point scale, of how likely is an activity to be disruptive; PR scores a 30/50. This is extremely high for a commercial entity. Using similar scoring for other activities; the Wright flyer is a 35 and the US’s move into spy satellites and strategic reconnaissance to cope with the USSR in the 1950s is a 32.
June 2013 Update:
Several members of the Planetary Resources team have done an AMA on Reddit.