Why I’m Leaving Azavea to Join Umbra

Good times.

Why Commercial Earth Observation is Such a Dysfunctional Industry

I caught the writing “bug” earlier this year when I published a diatribe on the commercial satellite imagery industry, “The Commercial Satellite Imagery Business Model is Broken.”

  • The near-monopsony of the US DoD, and the stagnant handful of firms that have made up the large majority of the commercial market to date (i.e. Google Maps, Apple Maps, Bing Maps, etc.)

Limitations of Optical Imagery

Even if the big players expressed a genuine interest in selling data into commercial markets, they probably couldn’t afford to, which is the central lament of my earlier piece on the subject. Speaking specifically about folks like Airbus, Maxar, BlackSky, and Planet, who mainly sell optical imagery, they’re up against some existential constraints.

Capacity

Optical imagery capacity is artificially limited by incessant cloud cover and available daylight hours — a great majority of the world is obscured at any given moment by one or both of those two confounding variables. The consequence is that much of the time that optical imagery satellites spend orbiting the Earth is a total waste.

Physics

The laws of physics are working against these optical imagery providers. Satellites orbit at a high altitude above Earth, even though they’re in what’s called “low Earth orbit.” These instruments tear across the sky at 15,000+ mph while suspended hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface, and yet the pictures they take can resolve street markings and car windshields on the ground below.

Look at the size of that lad! That’s Worldview-3, Maxar’s best operational sensor. Image courtesy of eoPortal.

Demand

The “medium” resolution persistent surveillance experiment that Planet has been running for the last decade has not paid off (at least, not yet). The central idea is a very compelling one — if you take a picture of the entire landmass of Earth once a day, you don’t have to deal with the opportunity cost that drives tasking-oriented companies to keep the price of satellite imagery so high. A variable cost suddenly becomes fixed, and you can build a different sort of business model — one that’s more like a software business with infinitely small marginal cost to serve each new customer.

Enter: Umbra

Obligatory “What do I do with my hands?” team photo.
  • Unlike optical imagery, SAR doesn’t require a large lens to resolve images. Rather, it uses an antenna, which can be folded up during launch. That means you can squeeze higher resolution from a smaller package, which in turn means you can manufacture and launch these satellites relatively inexpensively.
  • There’s also a technique called interferometric SAR (InSAR for short) that can measure extremely subtle changes in elevation over time based on the phase shift of the radar return. You know how police sometimes use radar guns to tell how fast you’re going? That’s a depth finding application for radar. InSAR works like a depth finder, allowing analysts to precisely measure which parts of the world are getting closer or further from the satellite (“uplift” vs. “subsidence”). If you build a house, the roof is closer to space than the foundation was when you started, which shows up as uplift. If an aquifer drains, an entire valley might literally sink a few centimeters, which shows up as subsidence. It’s a nifty feature of SAR that is very difficult to replicate with optical imagery and allows for relatively straightforward change detection (called “coherent change detection” when specifically describing InSAR-derived changes).
  • Nipping at their heels is Capella Space, an American startup which just launched their first operational satellite in August of last year. They plan to build a 30-satellite constellation over the coming years and have raised over $80M from top-tier investors (and I would not be surprised if a Series C or some alternative financing is imminent now that they’re streaming data down).
  • Earlier this year, PredaSAR announced that they raised $25M in seed funding (what do these designations mean anymore?) and swiftly packed their leadership team with retired military generals in a bid to position themselves as an up-and-coming defense contractor. I love the name — it’s very…earnest.

Betting on the Underdog

If you search around for Umbra, you won’t find much. Founded in 2015, the company was self-funded for years and kept a low profile as its founders, David Langan and Gabe Domincielo, stayed quietly focused on delivering early versions of what would become their marquee satellite design. They don’t make public declarations about launch dates, or how many satellites they plan to launch, or really much at all in the way of forward-looking statements. I like that. A lot.

  1. Their other big innovation is described in their publicly issued patent. It has to do with the antenna design itself — not only does the >10m² surface fold up into an extremely tiny package, but it’s also designed with a shock-absorbing rib/mesh combination that dampens interference caused by the satellite’s in-orbit maneuvering (resulting in a higher average throughput of images per day per satellite, since less time is wasted waiting for the antenna to stop vibrating).
The antenna unfurls kind of like an umbrella…umbr-ell-a…umbra…wait a minute!

A Nascent Market

I consider myself a fairly competitive person. I want to crush the competition. But I’m not referring to Capella or ICEYE — in fact, I deeply admire both of those organizations. I hope they’ll be closer to allies than foes, because SAR is not a “winner-take-all” market anymore than sneaker manufacturing is.

  • Every zoning and tax office waiting for people to call in with tips about unsanctioned building activity instead of monitoring for change proactively;
  • Every counter-party to a contract guaranteeing land will remain undeveloped and hoping for honest self-reporting;
  • Every aid and relief organization trying to understand the situation on the ground during a major flooding event with no access to real-time satellite imagery due to clouds;
  • Every journalist working to expose human rights violations on land they’re disallowed from visiting;
  • Et cetera

Risks

There’s a lot that can go wrong. Understanding the key risks of any endeavor, and being able to articulate how you’re mitigating them, is part of the fun of working at startups. Here are some I’ve thought a lot about:

Technical

I don’t know how to build satellites. I’m now going to work for a satellite imagery company. I have no more understanding of how SAR satellites are manufactured than I do of how artificial neural networks work — I’ve seen the output firsthand, and I’ve read about the design, but I still couldn’t personally make one with an unlimited amount of time.

Regulatory

The largest US-based satellite imagery provider, Maxar, first asked the U.S. Commerce Department for permission to image the Earth at 25cm resolution in 1999 (back then they were called EarthWatch Incorporated). They finally granted permission in 2014. That’s the kind of regulatory uncertainty that can suffocate a startup.

Financial

While preparing for this job, I interviewed a dozen or so people in leadership positions at commercial satellite imagery companies (past and present). The number one theme from those discussions: Earth imagery is, historically, a low-margin business that costs a lot to get into. Many high-profile companies in the past have gone bankrupt or been forced to sell, and almost every firm with staying power has at some point flirted with insolvency.

Market/Demand

Have I mentioned that I don’t personally believe there is any significant commercial market for SAR yet? I would bet that civilians spend more on decorative cheese board sets than they do on SAR imagery at the moment.

Ethical

I asked on Twitter recently if anyone knew of a good researcher studying the ethics of civilian Earth observation. I mostly got crickets…

Having My Cake and Eating It, Too

There’s one other detail I neglected to mention. Joining me from Azavea will be Chris Brown and Matt Williams, two of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. Chris was the lead software engineer on my team at Azavea, and Matt was the lead designer at the company. The three of us will have a chance to help Umbra build the best data distribution platform in the industry, and I can’t wait for the challenge.

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Joe Morrison

Joe Morrison

Comedic relief at Umbra. Writing about maps and the people that make them. For inquiries: jrmorrison.jrm [at] gmail [dot] com