Mark Gurman and Mark Bergen, reporting Friday for Bloomberg, have learned from sources who didn’t wish to be named that Apple is in the process of starting a brand new hardware team for which it recruited a pair of top Google executives specialized in satellites for collecting images and those for communications.
It’s unclear from the report what Apple’s secretive new hardware team might be focusing on, but it could be inferred from the hirings that Tim Cook & Co. might be considering a satellite constellation of their own for either image collection or some sort of communications services.
Apple and satellite engineering
John Fenwick, who led Google’s spacecraft operations, and Michael Trela, who was the search giant’s head of satellite engineering, left Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. for Apple in recent weeks.
Both men joined Google in 2014 when it acquired their satellite-imaging startup Skybox Imaging for a reported $500 million. In 2017, Google sold Skybox to startup Planet Labs Inc. Prior to entering the startup world, Fenwick served in the U.S. Air Force and Trela was a spacecraft engineer at John Hopkins University.
The two former Google executives now report to Greg Duffy, co-founder of camera maker Dropcam who joined Apple earlier this year to form a new team. He reports to Dan Riccio, who oversees hardware teams for iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple’s augmented reality efforts.
The report notes that Google planned to invest $1 billion in an internal satellite internet initiative run by industry veteran Greg Wyler before it invested $1 billion in SpaceX after Wyler left to start satellite communications firm OneWeb Ltd.
Considering Fenwick and Trela are experts in satellite design and operation, it’s reasonably safe to speculate that Apple could be looking to design or manage a satellite constellation.
The most likely answer: to boost Apple Maps with its own highly detailed satellite images, which could be very helpful should Apple decide to launch Maps web app in the future. Apple could also create its own Google Earth-like service, especially following the launch of the beautiful Google Earth web app earlier this week.
For years, the iPhone maker has operated a fleet of airplanes that capture aerial images of major metropolitan areas and landmarks from multiple angles, used to create detailed 3D views of buildings and other objects on Maps.
Apple goes Google Earth?
The company also operates a fleet of camera-and-sensor ladened minivans that roam the streets capturing data that helps improve Maps. I’m only speculating here, but those vehicles might be also taking street-level photographs that Apple could use for a Google Street View-like feature on Maps.
Bloomberg in December said Apple even relies on a fleet of drones to update Maps information faster than the aforesaid minivans allow. The FAA granted the Cupertino company approval to operate an unmanned aircraft system to conduct data collection, photography and videography.