Building a Real-Time, On-Demand Solution for the 21st Century

In a world where business is conducted through emails and text messages within seconds, waiting eight hours to receive a satellite image just seems archaic and impractical, says Capella Space Founder & CEO Payam Banazadeh, as he explains how he plans to change that

By GW Prime

Before founding Capella Space, you were employed at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, where your work on two missions got you the Mariner Award. How and when did you decide to move, and how was the idea of Capella Space conceived?

I started my career as a Systems Engineer at JPL after having interned there four times in a variety of capacities. I was lucky to have been part of the founding team for a few very innovative and exciting small-satellite projects, including the Lunar Flashlight — a micro-satellite flying to the moon using a solar sail that mapped ice-water deposits in the permanently shadowed craters, and NEA Scout — a micro-satellite flying to a near Earth asteroid for imaging and reconnaissance.

After a few years, I decided to go back to school and completed a business degree from Stanford University. Immediately after I arrived on the campus, the Malaysian flight MH370 tragically went missing and was never found. I was shocked and disappointed, that with all the resources and technology at our disposal, we could not locate or determine what happened to a plane!

Capella was born out of that frustration. I spent the next two years of my graduate degree asking myself why we are not able to monitor our planet much more frequently and work on a plan to ensure that an unexplained tragedy like MH370 never happens again.

As I understood more about the challenges of timely and reliable remote sensing, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) emerged as an all-weather, all-condition imaging technology for increasing the coverage and frequency with which we could observe change on Earth. If you look across the market, there actually aren’t that many SAR providers. Majority of small satellite players are focused on traditional sensors such as optical. Capella is uniquely positioned as the only commercial American SAR company and we will play a key role in shaping the next generation of geospatial information from space. We intend to be the gamechanger by being the most frequent, flexible and timely in delivering satellite imagery.

Which are the sectors that you are serving primarily and new areas you plan to tap into?

Defense and Intelligence is a critical vertical for our company as governments are the traditional users of SAR data. We are bringing a key value proposition to our government customers as the fastest to task, acquire and deliver high-resolution imagery with the Capella constellation of satellites. We are also unclassified, which means our data can be shared easily throughout the government, and we will have the fastest reactivity and best revisit time over any other satellite provider in the world.

However, we also see tremendous opportunity outside of government, as businesses look for a competitive advantage. By monitoring key areas of interest like major cities, ports, shipping lanes and critical infrastructure, we can provide reliable and consistent information flows to many verticals, from insurance and finance to agriculture and shipping. We are looking to open up new possibilities, markets and applications for remote sensing data, as we move closer to real-time and on-demand capability.

Capella’s satellite uses synthetic aperture radar; it can see through clouds and also collect imagery at night time

Capella plans to soon offer hourly coverage of every point on Earth, rendered in sub-meter resolution, through the world’s largest constellation of radar satellites. What is the current status of your constellation and near-time launch plans?

We launched our first pathfinder satellite called Denali in December 2018. Denali is operational and we have validated both our space system design as well as our network of ground infrastructure. Our next satellite, Sequoia, will be our first commercial imaging satellite, which will be launching on an Indian PSLV by 2019 end. After Sequoia, we have Whitney, a constellation of six satellites, already in production, that will launch in mid-2020, and will get us global coverage every six hours. We plan to continue adding batches of six satellites until we are at the full constellation of 36 by 2022, which will meet our target of one hour revisit to any point on the globe.

A very important development in the small satellite industry has been the use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics in satellites, popularized by Planet. How much of COTS electronics does Capella use and how you think this has a bearing on the total operational cost?

We certainly use COTS where and when it makes sense. As an example, we are flying an NVIDIA GPU on all our satellites which allows us to do real-time on-board processing of our imagery for advanced missions. However, we have been careful when it comes to sourcing components in order to balance reliability with cost. Our satellites are designed to work for three years; so, what matters to us is consistent and reliable service to our customers, which we provide by replenishing the constellation at regular intervals with more advanced spacecraft. This allows us to keep improving capabilities in space at pace with advancements in technology.

"Capella is uniquely positioned as the only commercial American SAR company, and we will play a key role in shaping the next generation of geospatial information from space"

Capella has an archive on the Cloud where users can search for high-resolution images and download them. How do you maintain such an extensive archive and make it user-friendly?

This is absolutely critical. There are many barriers that have limited the availability of useful satellite imagery, and as a result we haven’t seen the kind of software and application development using this data that you see in other industries. Our industry is completely outdated when it comes to providing a user-friendly, timely and easy service. We still rely on manual processes — phone calls, fax machines, hard drives through the mail, FTP sites – to service orders. At Capella, we are building our entire infrastructure on the Cloud, paying significant attention to the user experience, and providing instant access to the most timely and fresh data available.

Our ‘live maps’ product, for example, will draw from regular observation of thousands of most active ports, cities and points of commerce in the world, and make this information available at the click of a button and at a fraction of the price of current SAR data providers. You don’t have to order this data, wait for the order to be received, wait for a satellite to be tasked, wait for the image to be processed and delivered — it is already there for you in the Cloud, ready to be used. By opening up access to the most timely data available from places that people care about the most, I firmly believe that satellite imagery will become a critical piece in how businesses, NGOs, governments, and analysts and developers make decisions, build applications and bring value to their work.

Space 4.0, which is closely intertwined with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is going to shape the future of earth Observation. Do you think we aren’t too far from a scenario where technologies like AI, Machine Learning and Big Data will be literally driving the industry?

We are seeing the merger of a few key technologies that are critical in satellite imagery analysis. These technologies are becoming accessible and easy to use — miniaturization of electronics, increase in computational power and its scalability at a reasonable cost, Machine Learning that feeds off Big Data and dedicated small launch vehicles lowering the barriers to entering space. These are all critical to the rise of the remote sensing industry. There would simply be too much data and not enough eyes to look through it if we couldn’t store it in the Cloud, use edge computing to process quickly, and deploy Machine Learning algorithms for automated extraction of information.

How, according to you, will commercialization and democratization of Earth observation impact social, economic and industrial processes?

I think about this a lot. I generally am of the belief that democratizing access to information about our planet at the global level will bring a layer of transparency, and therefore accountability, across all domains, including social, economic and even political. In a world where “fake news” is spreading virally, the ability to provide ground truth and to quantify and qualify what’s happening on the ground, will allow us to better validate what we hear in media or in politics. I also believe that our world is too globalized for us to not have access to a global archive of our social, economic and political interactions. A century ago, we could have ignored events that are happening in a neighboring continent or country, and only focused on our own local problems. In the 21st Century, we are simply too intertwined and connected as a species to ignore such interactions. Space is one of the only vantage points where that global archive can be created. We need to get a lot better at understanding the links between events and people in our global world.

The threat of global warming has become more real than ever. In such a scenario, do you see earth observation data playing a key role in disaster planning/ management, and will its use for near and real-time environmental monitoring become mainstream?

Absolutely. This one is really close to my heart. We are taking more resources out of the environment while pumping back into it enormous quantities of waste and poison, thereby changing the composition of soil, water and atmosphere.

Habitats are getting degraded and animals and plants are becoming extinct. Satellite imagery can give us insight into some of these changes, such as the Great Barrier reef off Australia and in the Amazon rainforest. The best scientific estimates indicate that unless we dramatically cut the emission of greenhouse gases in the next 20 years, average global temperatures will increase by more than 3.6 degree F, resulting in expanding deserts, disappearing ice caps, rising oceans, and frequent extreme weather events. The impact of such events will go as far as endangering our food security through decrease in agriculture production, and will create mass migration crisis as people move from uninhabitable regions.

We need to build non-terrestrial infrastructure that allows us to monitor, predict, manage and help mitigate and control such disasters before, during and after they occur. And space, again, is going to be critical in all those phases, especially in an all-day, all-weather system like Capella’s.

What has prevented people from adopting remote sensing in business applications and how does Capella plan to change that?

There are countless barriers to using satellite imagery in business today. Lack of consistency and reliability, fixed imaging windows, latency and slow reactivity, insufficient resolution, cost and complexity are some of them.

If you are a commercial business you would have to spend thousands of dollars to order a single SAR image through a very painful ordering system that is outdated, slow and hard to work with, only to realize that you might get bumped, cancelled, or have to wait hours or even days to have your order fulfilled.

In a world where business is conducted through emails and text messages within seconds, waiting eight hours to receive a satellite image just seems archaic and impractical. Add to this the inability of the majority of satellites to do imaging when it’s cloudy or dark, and you are left with a service that is unreliable, data that is out of date, and a transaction that is prohibitively expensive for many who would benefit from better geospatial information.

SAR solves the reliability issue by allowing us to guarantee a collection independent of weather and light conditions, and Capella is building the infrastructure and customer experience to create a real-time, on-demand solution for the 21st Century.