As a new entrant it quickly became obvious that there were opportunities within the space technology sector
“You want to know where our business could be in five years’ time?” Paul Majmader has to pause for thought. So much changes in the space technology sector.
So fast that the commercial director of Earth-i is reluctant to make too many predictions. At a minimum though, he predicts the business will have fifteen of its own satellites in space. All providing very high-resolution, near real-time video and still images of anywhere on Earth, plus the analytics and the insights to be found in that data.
In the beginning
It was as recently as January 2018 that Earth-i launched their first satellite, the VividX2. A demonstrator for what will be the world’s first full-colour, full-motion video satellite constellation and the first European-owned commercial constellation to provide both video and still images.
“As a new entrant it quickly became obvious to us that there were opportunities that the incumbents didn’t see,” explains Jonathan Sumner, business development director. “There was an oversupply of lower resolution satellite data in general, but a dearth of very high resolution observation data and analysis. Video was going to be the next frontier but could we commercialise it? That’s what we have been working on.”
Until they have their own constellation, Earth-i will continue to use other companies’ satellites to supply their stream of space imagery. They can monitor any location on Earth, including moving objects, says Majmader. “We can provide imagery of a forest, a port, a mine, a refinery, a construction site, farms, roads, car parks…”
One of their points of difference is image data analysis. This specialism, along with the very high resolution of the imagery, could make the business not just a British and European leader but also a world leader, says Sumner. “We expect to see new opportunities for the development of tools and applications that can leverage valuable information from the high-frequency, high-resolution image and video data.”
Building customer relationships
Until a few years ago, Earth observation was mainly led and financed by governments and by multinationals such as Airbus with “big, exquisite satellites that cost enormous amounts of money,” says Sumner. “They had some capacity for commercial use but if we wanted a piece of it, a company of our size would be at the back of the queue. But now there is a transition to small commercial ventures led by a new generation of space entrepreneurs, who are designing and building satellites and launch systems on the back of commercial demand.
Everyone’s heard of Elon Musk and Richard Branson but there are lots of other entrepreneurs getting into the space sector and pushing technology further and further,” says Sumner. “It makes commercialising space an exciting reality.”
Looking to the future
Much of the market will continue to be defence-related, says Majmader. But there is a bigger swing towards new commercial applications. “For example hedge funds, mine owners and oil and gas companies, all want information about things that could affect their markets. One of our customers is a state government in Australia, where they are using the data to make sure that mine owners are abiding by the regulations for land use.”
“For that reason,” says Sumner, “we often underplay the satellites. It’s space and it’s sexy but it’s the data that’s really important. The satellite is just the instrument for collecting the data.”
There are, of course, barriers to entry: it costs at least £20,000 to launch even a small payload. Once they’re in space, some micro-satellites only last six months because of thermal forces and radiation. The revenue might not justify the launch costs.
However, economies of scale will bring down the cost. “Companies like Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, our supplier, have reduced Earth observation satellites to the size of a fridge,” marvels Sumner. “Rather than bespoke engineering every piece, they buy in parts and build them into small but highly capable satellites. Reducing the size and weight makes launch costs less so they are commercially viable. And they can launch a lot more of them.”
Fast growing space technology
The mission is to advance Earth observation and space data analytics to give “unprecedented certainty” for customers. “Success would be a large constellation of satellites and us giving customers the critical, meaningful insight through data scientists and analysts who can make sense of the data feeds,” asserts Majmader.
“We don’t just want to be a space company; we are building a solutions business using space-based data to provide unique answers that could provide world-beating solutions. You want an example? The oil and gas industry can do remote geological surveys without the health and safety concerns of having people on the ground. Location data underpins everything. In any industry where strategic location of assets is important, companies value the ability to understand in near real-time what’s happening in their supply chain. Imagery from space can also be integrated with data from social media.”
One of the selling points of Earth-i is that their satellites have different orbital parameters, meaning they will ultimately go past any location several times a day, which makes it possible to view anywhere on Earth and plot movement over time in strategic locations. Commodities traders could map the journey of iron ore from its sources in Australia and Brazil to the various ports in China, where more than 60% of it is shipped. “That’s starting to push the frontiers,” says Sumner.
He explains that most satellite imagery used to be taken only once a day, about ten o’clock in the morning. This was because it’s the best time from the perspective of the atmosphere and the available light. But the more satellites there are available for commercial purposes and the more orbits they make, the more opportunities for near real-time imagery.
This can be important in activities such as monitoring illegal tree logging. “The loggers know to expect the satellite to pass at ten in the morning. So they simply down tools at that time and hide in the trees,” says Sumner. “Also, most existing imagery doesn’t have the resolution or frequency to clearly identify such activities, so loggers can take out every other tree and the imagery doesn’t pick easily that up. But ours does.”
Satellites can also be used for other environmental reasons, such as monitoring unregulated urban growth to help with United Nations sustainable development goals. Earth-i received a £2.7million UK Space Agency grant to launch an app that uses satellite imagery and weather data to provide crop, weather and pest analysis to smallholder coffee farmers in Africa.
“These are answers that mean something to people, not just to big businesses,” Sumner says.
The increasing amounts of data mean developing machine learning and AI techniques to analyse it. “Algorithms can automatically detect changes. They tell us ‘there is something here that looks different that needs to be looked at’,” says Majmader. “We can then analyse the changes in more detail with a higher resolution satellite.”
The forty-strong Earth-i team come from backgrounds as diverse as aerospace, aviation, medical imagery, geospatial remote sensing and even financial services. Although space is a niche sector, it’s the programming, data collection and analysis skills that are crucial.
Majmader says it’s crucial to foster an environment that will attract “the right people, writing the right algorithms”. “We need to keep challenging ourselves to continually look for improvement. We don’t want to become one of the thousands of institutions that are set in their ways,” he explains. “Furthermore we like to have an environment where people can come up with new ideas, and have their say.”
Quick to react is key
“Agility is becoming an overused word but speed to market. But building satellites and getting them up there quickly enough – is one of our challenges,” adds Sumner. “We have to be agile enough to react, while sticking to the roadmap. So we need to feed the company with enough people of the right calibre to keep development going. We challenge the structures which are set up when a company grows to a certain size. Furthermore we try to avoid being departmentalised because silos really slow you down. We encourage dialogue, even shouting across the room if that’s what it takes!”
It’s not easy for a UK start-up to walk into a space where big corporates have been playing for some time, but Earth-i have. Together with “very supportive and committed” private investors and have a funding road map for their contract for the first five satellites.
Looking to the future
Majmader says the government is supportive of the space sector in the UK. The sector as a whole is very collaborative. “ We could partner very well with young and small companies as well as universities and research organisations to share knowledge and develop new products and services. We have a huge challenge, not just with the satellites but also with developing an international presence. Likewise recruiting and training people, so some things we can’t do internally.
“Our satellite went up on an Indian rocket. We also have opportunities to work with launch systems in America, France and New Zealand. It’s exciting as everyone is talking to everyone else; there is so much to be gained from that, even though we might compete now or in the future. The technology needs to mature rapidly and everybody wants that to happen.
“For example, there is a company in Finland which has developed radar satellites. That’s really interesting because if we could mix our optical data with their radar data. We would potentially get not just all-day but also all-night information. This is because radar sensors can see through the clouds and at night. Why not work together?”
Where do they see the company long term? “Our focus is on building a successful world-beating business rather than worrying about a financial exit,” says Sumner.