You'd think it would be tough for a 1,200-foot long oil tanker to get lost in the shuffle, but it happens, especially, say, in the blinding bustle at the Port of Singapore, where half of the world's crude is shipped every year.
Keeping tabs on the tankers is big money for hedge funds who try to keep up using the ships' movements to predict where the price of oil is going. Kenneth Singleton, a Stanford economics professor who studies the oil market, tells of firms flying helicopters overhead to gauge inventories. Some funds, he notes, have gone as far as hiring full-time port observers on the ground to radio back intelligence, an attempt to counteract the nautical practice of ships turning off their tracking sensors to intentionally obscure their location.
"But what if investment firms had an eye in the sky?" asks John Fenwick, the co-founder of Skybox Imaging. A former Air Force officer, Fenwick is engaging in one of his company's favorite pastimes: Dreaming up use-cases for its technology -- low-cost satellites that could make images of any location on Earth accessible to the mass market.
Skybox is launching its first satellite into space this September on a Russian rocket, and hedge funds with an interest in monitoring major ports could be among its first customers. Oil futures may never be the same.