Spire CubeSat Satellites Will Enable Drone Ships
In a recent article, we talked about the potential of drone cargo shipping. Why is there so much talk about autonomous cars, when the potential of autonomous shipping sounds so much more feasible and safe? While the technology for drone shipping is in development at the moment, there’s one thing that’s keeping drone ships from becoming a reality. With +71% of the earth’s surface covered in oceans, we first need the ability for any ship in any ocean, anywhere, to have reliable and cost effective communication with a land-based operator. While companies like Richard Branson’s Oneweb want to enable cheap Internet access anywhere, there’s one company with a maritime focus looking to provide more than 4-times the frequency of readings over all oceans on Earth, and delivering fresh data multiple times per hour. That company is called Spire.
Founded in 2012, San Francisco based startup Spire has taken in $66.5 million in funding to develop the “first data stream designed for full maritime awareness” powered by low-orbit CubeSat satellites. While we might visualize satellites as giant monstrosities, with today’s technology we can release small satellites into orbit that contain much of the same functionality as traditional satellites but at a fraction of the size and cost. Take a look at the size of a CubeSat satellite which weighs less than 3 lbs:
As of now, Spire has launched 17 of these CubeSat satellites with 13 being production ready. These satellites have a revisit time of under an hour. A satellite’s “revisit time” is the time elapsed between observations of the same point on earth by a satellite. That frequency of updates is 2X better than any existing solution today according to Spire. Late last year, Spire began deployment of the world’s first commercial weather satellite network. The combination of ship tracking and weather data allows Spire to provide the information needed to empower autonomous shipping across the entire global economy. Spire will be able to act fast and adapt quickly given their company culture. There are no “sacred cows”. Spire states thay they are “willing to give up on any accepted solution if that means a better outcome or solving an entirely new problem“.
Spire has two product offerings that leverage their small network of low-orbit CubeSats. The first is called Spire SENSE, a product that will provide consistent data covering all of Earth’s oceans. The immediate value adds here are decreased search time for maritime rescue operations, greater security against modern-day pirates, and the ability to monitor illegal fishing activities. The second product offering is called Spire STRATOS, a solution that this year will provide 10X more GPS-RO based weather data than the sum of all publicly funded weather satellites currently in operation. That’s not just on the open seas. Spire is targeting a CubeSat satellite network that can monitor and forecast weather conditions anywhere on the surface of our amazing planet.
Spire’s ultimate goal is to deploy a network of over 100 CubeSats that will gather up to 100X the amount of weather data that we’re currently receiving from the 20 or so weather satellites in deployment today. While Spire’s plans sound straightforward, these low-orbit satellites require more maintenance than you would think. Each of the CubeSat satellites in the Spire constellation will need to be retired and replaced every two years. Spire’s CubeSat satellites are not fully autonomous either, as they need to receive and analyze data from existing GPS satellites to work. Spire’s ambitious plans call for their entire 100 CubeSat satellite network to be fully deployed by 2017. If they can meet this ambitious goal, then we’ll be one step closer to seas inhabited by drone ships.
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