Loft Orbital, Planet Execs Stress Business Case for Smarter, Smaller Satellite Solutions

The millennial and Gen-X cofounders of many of today’s most buzzworthy small-satellite startups likely didn’t envision the magnitude of launches, or the rollout of megaconstellations, when they began their careers.

But during Monday morning’s “Small Satellite GNSS, Earth Observation, and Sensing Data Systems” session at SATELLITE 2020, it was clear that — at least for the two entrepreneurs who served as panelists and their session attendees — that the demand for cost-efficient launches and highly granular data and actionable insights is only growing stronger. As a result, the opportunity for innovation is at an all-time high.

Small satellite Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and remote sensing represent one of the brightest market segments in the satellite industry. According to NSR’s “Small Satellite Markets Report, 6th Edition,” released a few months ago, the industry could see close to $42 billion in cumulative revenues from smallsat manufacturing and launch services by 2028.

The potential applications from these technologies are seemingly endless, according to panelists, who described multiple ways they are serving clients through their satellite missions — using satel- lite-based data gathering to do everything from enforcing laws regarding marijuana growing to detecting methane leakages. These are just a handful of applications made possible by advanced Earth Observation (EO), GNSS, and sensing data systems.

Robbie Schingler, co-founder and CSO of Planet, which focuses on remote sensing subscription services and business intelligence, said that it’s an exciting time for companies like his, though he initially underestimated the need for newness — and the fast pace at which technology can go stale.

“We’ve gone to space over 26 different times, we had two failures,” said Schingler. “Our second flock of satellites ... we finished all 26 satellites ready to go weeks before delivery, we felt really good about it. But then the launch was delayed ... and we didn’t need the payload. And by the time the launch happened ... we were six months later, we were two generations behind, so we adjusted processes to manufacture satellites right before we would deliver them ... that is the reason why we built up manufacturing capability so we launched latest technology into space.”

Alex Greenberg, co-founder and COO of Loft Orbital, suggested that the satellite industry is easier to enter today than it was when Schingler launched Planet.

“We started in 2017 standing on the shoulders of early pioneers like Planet, and if you wanted to get a commercial license from [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] NOAA ... in 2010 that was more difficult, and now it’s more of a predictive and normalized process,” said Greenberg. “Today we’re really benefiting from a lot of the investments that a lot of people before us had to trudge through.”

Much of the session offered lessons for would-be entrepreneurs. Both Greenberg and Schingler talked about how their companies are riding a new wave of innovation, with the high interest in launching cube sats and megaconstellations.

“When we started Loft we looked at the supply chain and saw some parts were commoditized, which we would buy from vendors and suppliers, and other parts where we could innovate,” said Greenberg. “We realized the investment in megaconstellations and cubesats would generate a proliferation of cheap busses ... we now see mass manufacturing of busses... we want to develop products that require very little customization on those platforms.”

While the company has experienced challenges in navigating logistical issues — such as the timing of flying payloads on competing missions — the value proposition of delivering data has helped Loft Orbital thrive: The company reportedly announced a raise of $13 million in the fall (for a total of $20 million), to develop its constellation of small satellites. Its first satellite, YAM-2, is reportedly scheduled to launch in 2020 with five payloads.

“I was working at Spire, and I saw that with the data they were collecting, there was a lot of value in the data itself, but value in the machine learning and unlocking data and deriving insights. But we realized what was missing was being a platform for anyone who desired to be a data company.”

When asked by session moderator Dr. Hannah Kerner, an assistant research professor at University of Maryland — whose research focuses on developing machine learning solutions for a variety of remote sensing applications — how they perceive demand will shift in the next five years, Schingler was optimistic.

“All of us in the remote sensing immunity feel like we’ve been on the cusp ... for many, many years,” he said. “Some market verticals are much faster than others ... but we’re seeing adoption much faster in areas that don’t currently use geospatial data, because they don’t have [legacy systems] work in them.”

In the future, panelists said more advanced technologies will have the capability of tracking small satellites with greater accuracy.

“Some customers whom we’re flying a payload would benefit from knowing exactly where the payload is,” said Greenberg. VS

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