Why I’m Leaving Azavea to Join Umbra

Good times.

Why Commercial Earth Observation is Such a Dysfunctional Industry

  • The historical capital requirements to build, launch, and run satellite constellations (and the subsequent governance structures that arise from aggressive fundraising)
  • 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

Capacity

Physics

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

Demand

Enter: Umbra

Obligatory “What do I do with my hands?” team photo.
  • SAR renders “images” of Earth by beaming down radar pulses and measuring the response. This technique images the Earth equally well during day or night. SAR can also “see” through clouds. As a result, every image a SAR system captures of the Earth is relatively unobscured, and which gives SAR constellations much greater freedom to maneuver around the globe for efficient tasking vs. their optical counterparts.
  • 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).
  • ICEYE, a Finnish startup, launched their first prototype satellite in January of 2018. They currently have 2 satellites on orbit, with 16 more planned. They’ve raised over $150M, with $87M of that coming just a few months ago in a Series C financing.
  • 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

  1. Umbra will be able to capture insanely high resolution images using a remarkably tiny satellite. They’ll use a proprietary radar that allows for greater bandwidth, resulting in images rendered at a higher spatial resolution. Specifically: their radar generates a signal greater than 1,200MHz of bandwidth (as opposed to ~300MHz for ICEYE and ~500MHz for Capella despite those satellites being significantly heavier).
  2. 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

  • Every bank that sends staff to construction sites once a year instead of checking on progress remotely once a week;
  • 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

Technical

Regulatory

Financial

Market/Demand

Ethical

Having My Cake and Eating It, Too

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

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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

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