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Space Radar Satellites Tracking Earth From Space

Nobody likes to be told, “We told you so.” It’s right up there with someone saying, “look out,” right after you’ve stepped through a manhole that’s missing its cover. But at the end of last year we told you about five developments to look out for in NewSpace. As we predicted, the industry is heating up quickly, though it’s still far from becoming a trillion-dollar business. One of the takeaways: satellites will continue to dominate the industry, particularly small satellites ranging up to 100 kilograms. SpaceWorks Enterprises, an aerospace engineering design and analysis firm, predicts there will be about 263 small satellite launches this year, up 160 percent from just two years ago. The revised forecast, according to SpaceWorks, is partly driven by the strong influx of venture capital dollars. We’ve recently seen this with startups specializing in a type of space radar that once required bus-sized satellites to operate properly.

Space Radar Satellites Tracking You From Space

Keep an Eye on ICEYE

A Finnish space radar startup called ICEYE, founded in 2012, is a perfect example. We first wrote about this company exactly a year ago as one of 10 “smallsat” companies preparing to launch fleets of satellites into space. The company had raised about $5 million between government grants and a modest $2.8 Series A at the time of our report. Last month, ICEYE took in $34 million to bring total funding to $53.8 million. The amount includes $14.2 million from a couple of venture rounds last year after our original article came out. A VC firm in Silicon Valley called True Ventures, with $1.4 billion under management, led the latest round. Other investors include Seraphim Capital, which specializes in the NewSpace industry.

An artist’s conception of ICEYE-X1, the startup’s first commercial satellite.

Incidentally, Seraphim has also backed Spire, another NewSpace startup launching itty bitty satellites into space. Since we last wrote about that company about two years ago, Spire has taken in $83 million in additional financing, for a total of $149.5 million for its CubeSat satellites that are about the size of a toaster. Spire and ICEYE share a similar focus—providing satellite intelligence for the shipping industry—though both also provide additional geospatial analytical satellite services.

However, ICEYE employs a very different imaging technology called synthetic aperture radar. SAR relies on the “long-range propagation characteristics of radar signals and the complex information processing capability of modern digital electronics to provide high-resolution imagery.” Did that go way over your head like a satellite? The main thing you need to understand is that it offers a big advantage over traditional optical imagery because SAR can operate at night or even through hazy atmospheric conditions such as cloud cover. You can geek out over a deeper explanation of SAR here from Sandia National Laboratories.

It Works!

The other thing to know is that ICEYE proved it could make the technology work aboard a small satellite weighing just 70 kilograms (about 150 pounds). Compare that to supersized radar satellites like the Canadian Space Agency’s RADARSAT-2, which tips the scales at 2,300 kilograms (about 5,100 pounds). Check out the imagery from its first commercial SAR satellite, which launched in January on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

Credit: ICEYE

ICEYE has contracts to launch two additional satellites this year, one with SpaceX and the other with Rocket Lab, according to SpaceNews, which also reported that ICEYE plans to launch nine more radar satellites by the end of 2019.

As we noted earlier, ICEYE has its eye on the maritime industry. It sounds like the NewSpace startup is using some form of artificial intelligence, or at least some sophisticated software, in its analytics. As Rafal Modrzewski, ICEYE chief executive and co-founder, told SpaceNews:

“We have an algorithm that automatically extracts data on vessels and their locations. We are building an additional layer that analyzes how the vessels move to determine whether they are fishing vessels, military vessels, illegal fishing vessels or some sort of vessel with an undefined pattern that should be verified.”

It’s not just ships that ICEYE can track from space. It says its technology is well suited for keeping an eye on icebergs that might threaten ships or offshore rigs, especially through clouds and darkness. Measuring sea ice is another cool (pun intended) trick from the space radar. In fact, the company’s first contract, with ExxonMobil in 2015, involved a proof of concept for detecting ice types in the Arctic. In addition, ICEYE space radar can even provide data to calculate ocean current and magnitude, which helps ships find the most efficient shipping channels.

A Space Radar Satellite Race

As you might expect, ICEYE isn’t alone in developing space-based radar systems. Here are a few other startups competing in this NewSpace space:

Founded in 2016, Silicon Valley’s Capella Space has raised nearly $15 million in funding. We highlighted the company last summer, and it appears that they still plan to create a constellation of 36 space radars featuring SAR technology. More recently, in March, Capella reportedly scored a license with NOAA for two SAR satellites, moving it closer to getting some of its backpack-sized satellites into space. 

Credit: Capella

The company is targeting a number of industries in addition to maritime service, including oil and gas, agriculture and the environment.

Founded in 2014, Ursa Space Systems out of Ithaca, New York, has raised $7.4 million, most of it from a $7 million Series A last October. The startup is more of data analytics company, as it doesn’t operate (or plan to) any satellites. In fact, Ursa inked a deal in April with ICEYE to provide satellite imagery for monitoring oil wells and measuring global oil storage. These sorts of insights are intended to help traders and analysts in the financial industry, as well as the energy industry, make more informed decisions. Other NewSpace companies like Orbital Insight also leverage satellite imagery, along with artificial intelligence, for making business decisions. Someone is watching: Orbital Insight more than doubled its funding to $78.7 million since our feature article on the startup in January 2017, including a $50 million Series C led by top VC firm Sequoia Capital.

Founded in 2015, Santa Barbara, California-based Umbra Lab has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding from a number of venture capital firms including Starbridge, who also was an investor in Planet Labs (considered to be the current leader in the small satellite space). In a blog post last month, Starbridge talks about how Umbra Lab is developing a 12-satellite constellation with SAR capabilities that represents “another leap forward in performance, pioneering a new generation of commercial remote sensing.” Umbra says its satellites will offer the highest resolution space radar on the market – “the world’s only radar imaging satellite capable of producing .25 meter (10-inch) resolution imagery and higher.” For reference, ICEYE’s first commercial satellite has 10-meter resolution, with the second-generation improving to three meters. (For all you Americans out there who are giving us confused looks right now, a meter is pretty much equal to a yard.)

Another investor in Umbra Lab, Crosscut Ventures, published an article on Medium last month talking about just how valuable high-resolution imagery is when it comes to the big data that AI algorithms need to analyze said imagery. Here’s an example:

Lincoln Lab ran algorithms to automatically classify and identify large vehicles with SAR imagery taken from a drone at different resolutions. At 1-meter, they could automatically classify these vehicles 45.4% of the time, after improving the imagery to .5 meters the probability of correct classification increased to 95.4%.

That’s an incredible increase in accuracy by getting to under .5 meter resolution. Umbra is targeting .25 meter resolution which is something that not even $100 million satellites can do at the moment.

Finally, we came across a company called XpressSAR, which hasn’t made any significant news since 2015 when it announced it had received a commercial remote sensing license from NOAA for its planned system of four space radar satellites. In fact, the copyright on the company’s website is also 2015 … Draw your own conclusions.

Conclusions

Speaking of conclusions, here’s ours: The ability to shrink space radars down to below 100 kilograms is a real game changer in terms of both construction and launch costs for these types of satellites. ICEYE seems to have taken the lead and is already improving the resolution without adding much bulk (about 20 pounds) to its next-generation SAR satellite. As the constellation grows, it will provide even faster “revisit” rates, meaning updated data on the same geographic location, on the scale of just a few hours. That’s important not just for automating something like shipping traffic but for, say, managing assets during a natural disaster such as a hurricane, where persistent cloud cover would foil optical satellite systems.

We look forward to revisiting ICEYE in the future to see where this 75-person company is going next, especially as awareness grows around the possibilities surrounding business intelligence from outer space.

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