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Launch HN: Albedo (YC W21) – Highest resolution satellite imagery
202 points by topherhaddad 73 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 128 comments
Hey HN! I’m Topher, here with Winston and AJ, and we’re the co-founders of Albedo (https://albedo.space). We’re building satellites that will capture both visible and thermal imagery - at a resolution 9x higher than what is available today (see comparison: https://photos.app.goo.gl/gwokp4WT8JPvyue98).

My technical background is primarily in optics/imaging science related to remote sensing. I previously worked for Lockheed Martin, where I met AJ, who is an expert in satellite architecture and systems engineering. We’ve spent most of our career working on classified space systems, and while the missions we were involved with are super cool, that world is slower to adopt the latest new space technologies. We started Albedo in order to create a new type of satellite architecture that captures high resolution imagery at a fraction of the cost historically required. Winston was previously a software engineer at Facebook, where he frequently used satellite imagery and realized the huge potential of higher resolution datasets.

While the use cases for satellite imagery are endless, adoption has been underwhelming - even for obvious and larger applications like agriculture, insurance, energy, and mapping. The main limitations that have prevented widespread use are high cost, inaccessibility, and low resolution.

Today, buying commercial satellite imagery involves a back-and-forth with a salesperson in a sometimes months-long process, with high prices that exclude all but the biggest companies. This process needs to be simplified with transparent, commodity pricing and an automated process, where all you need to buy imagery is a credit card. On the accessibility front, it’s surprising how few providers have nailed down a streamlined, fully cloud-based delivery mechanism. While working at Facebook, Winston sometimes dealt with imagery delivered through FTP servers or physical hard drives. Another thing users are looking for is more transparency when tasking a new satellite image, such as an immediate assessment of when it will be collected. These are all problems we are working on solving at Albedo.

On the space side, we’re able to achieve the substantial cost savings by taking advantage of emerging space technologies, two of which are electric propulsion and on-orbit refueling. Our satellites will fly super close to the earth, essentially in the atmosphere, enabling 10cm resolution without having to build a school bus sized satellite.

Electric propulsion makes the fuel on our satellites way more efficient, at the expense of low thrust. Think about it like your car gasoline going from 30 to 300 mpg, but you could only drive 5 mph. Our propulsion only needs to maintain a steady offset to the atmospheric drag, so low thrust and high efficiency is perfect. By the time our first few satellites run out of fuel, on-orbit refueling will be a reality, and we can just refill our tanks. We’re still in the architecture and design phase, but we expect to have our first few satellites flying in 2024 and the full constellation up in 2027.

The current climate crisis requires a diverse set of sensors in space to support emissions monitoring, ESG initiatives/investments, and infrastructure sustainability. Thermal sensors are a key component for this, and very few are currently in orbit. Since our satellites are larger than normal, they are uniquely suited to capture the long wavelengths of thermal energy at a resolution of 2 meters. We’ll also be taking advantage of advances in microbolometer technology, to eliminate the crazy cooling requirements that have made thermal satellites so expensive in the past. The current state-of-the-art for thermal resolution is 70 meters, which is only marginally useful for most applications.

We’re aiming to adopt the stance of being a pure data provider (i.e. not doing analytics). We think the best way to facilitate overall market growth is to do one thing incredibly well: sell imagery better, cheaper, and faster than what users have available today. While this allows us to be vertical agnostic, some of our more well-suited applications include: crop health monitoring, pipeline inspection, property insurance underwriting/weather damage evaluation, and wildfire/vegetation management around power lines. By making high-res imagery a commodity, we are also betting on it unlocking new applications in a similar fashion to GPS (e.g. Tinder, Pokemon Go, and Uber).

One last thing - new remote sensing regulations were released by NOAA last May, removing the previous limit on resolution. So between the technology side and regulatory side, the timing is kind of perfect for us.

All thoughts and questions are appreciated - and we’d love to hear if you know of any companies that could benefit from our imagery. Thanks for reading!

Looks really cool! I love when new sensors appear!

Some (minor) questions:

> both visible and thermal imagery - at a resolution 9x higher than what is available today

This sentence is infuriatingly ambiguous. Does the 9x refer to only thermal, or also to visible? And what does 9x even mean? Today I can buy worldview3 data which is 30cm/pixel. Are you offering 3.33cm/pixel? I don't think that this is possible without a major, Nobel-prize deserving, breakthrough in optical imaging.

> Today, buying commercial satellite imagery involves a back-and-forth with a salesperson in a sometimes months-long process, with high prices that exclude all but the biggest companies.

This does not match with my personal experience. For many satellites, I can just click a region of interest on a map, and pay the satellite data using a credit card. It is much cheaper to get images from the archive than tasking, but apart from web-UX shenanigans the process is quite streamlined.

> The current climate crisis requires a diverse set of sensors in space to support emissions monitoring

What wavelengths are you aiming for? What spectral resolution? I'd say that most emissions detection happens at the near and short-wave infrared bands, far from the thermal. What climate-relevant emissions are you thinking about, specifically?

I love the contents of this message, but I would like to see it much more specific. This first paragraph it's ok but reads like marketing-speak, not a scientific language.

> While the use cases for satellite imagery are endless, adoption has been underwhelming

This sentence is comically false.

It is rather ambiguous, apologies. Imaging is a 2-dimensional measurement, so spatial resolution improvements follow a squared nature. Our GSD will be 10cm, so we arrive at 9x by (30^2/10^2). Said another way, nine 10cm pixels will fit in one 30cm pixel. The 9x refers to the visible imagery, whereas our thermal (LWIR) GSD will be 2m, and the best available today is 70m.

For thermal, we're only doing broadband 7.5um - 13.5um. You're correct in that direct emissions measurements is best made with SWIR. However, there are applications where heat signatures can be used to calculate emissions. For example, if you know the surface material and fuel type of a power plant, you can calculate carbon emission from the heat signature in the thermal image. Climate Trace will use our data for this.

Thanks for the answer! It was clarified in the website, but the "9x" sentence was still ambiguous. Very often, image processing people will understand "resolution" as a linear unit, like dpi or gsd. Using its square seems strange, likely only useful for marketing purposes, and thus a red flag for technically minded people.

That said, 10cm per pixel is impressive if you manage to pull it through! Cannot wait to buy these images!

I totally agree the 9x is somewhat marketing speak, but I do think that the way GSD has historically been characterized by the 1-dimensional measurement does not do spatial resolution improvements enough justice. Electro-optical imaging systems are analogous to any digital sampling system. If you were sampling a sine wave at 90 Hz instead of 10 Hz, that's clearly a 9x improvement as you end up with 9x more samples. The same is true for imaging, you're digitally sampling an object with discrete pixels (of course there's more to overall image quality than just spatial resolution). Another side note is that the government NIIRS imagery rating system captures this squared effect through the log2(GSD) term in the equation. Photographers also think more about it in 2D, as they characterize resolution in total Megapixels in the image. Ok I'm done, I'll get off my resolution soapbox :)

I would agree that resolution is usually considered a linear unit (eg X cm/pixel). The improvement still looks great, but I also find the 9x a bit misleading.

You mentioned agriculture as an avenue, but I'm already aware of farmers using drones for such tasks. Also importantly, it can be done on the farmers' timescale, rather than the last time a satellite was overhead.

They monitor all sorts of things, soil wetness, crop/weed growth, weed identification, cattle location (they used to use helicopters here in Oz for such things)...

Just imagine if you could get that as a service where you just open your phone and check on progress as needed. Better yet, you might get notifications when changes are detected so you can spend more time elsewhere. There is no reason that a set of satellites couldn't cover a single spot of the Earth once/more per day.

Hopefully they have good ML talent on hand that can help sort through the imagery and provide some form of automatic analysis for their customers.

The post specifically says that they're an imagery pure-play. That kind of ML automated analysis is something they envisage another business layering on top.

> provide some form of automatic analysis for their customers.

These automatic analyses are much better when they integrate data from several satellites. This seems a job best done by focused third parties that choose the optimal combination of satellites. A single satellite company would be inevitably biased towards using preferrably their sensors, to a detriment of analysis quality.

You also want to know your neighbor's data which you can't easily fly a drone over. And not just for competition.

Presumably the "9X higher" imagery is due to the fact that this company's satellites will fly much lower than the current commercial fleet. OP says as much in his post -- they'll fly "in the atmosphere."

So no Nobel-prize level achievements needed in optical breakthroughs.

Do you have any data to back up that simply lowering a satellite can achieve a 9X increase in image resolution? Or are you merely speculating?

If you divide the height of the satellite by X then the resolution is multiplied by X. This is Thales theorem [0]. What else do you need?

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intercept_theorem

> and pay the satellite data using a credit card.

I've never done it. Can you provide a few links I can try?

As the founder of https://ayvri.com, I've got some experience with this space as a customer or large amounts of satellite imagery. We expected the price of imagery to decrease, but what we've found is that as the resolution increases, the value of the imagery is higher for a larger number of businesses, and therefore, imagery providers like Bing (now Azure) have 10x'd the price, focusing on customers with lower demands, but more dollars to spend.

The question I have is regarding diminishing returns of satellite vs aerial at high resolutions. We're one example of a service that needs large areas of high resolution imagery, but most use cases as we understand them, are focused on areas in the sub-kilometer range, and therefore can likely be well serviced by drones in the near future.

Planet Labs, as an example, seem to now be focusing less on the source of the imagery, and mixing satellite with aerial in order to get the best result, using the right tool for the job.

I'm sure you've thought deeply about this, and I'd be keen to understand why you think theirs is the wrong appraoch.

> Today, buying commercial satellite imagery involves a back-and-forth with a salesperson in a sometimes months-long process, with high prices that exclude all but the biggest companies.

When I read statements like this, I tend to read it as "We are not Maxar (Digital Globe)". They are definitely the "legacy" in the commercial satellite imagery market. But what do you see as the discriminator of your company to newer companies providing commercial imagery like Planet and BlackSky? High resolution and thermal imagery are certainly discriminators but other companies are driving that direction too (higher resolution, larger spectral coverage).

It's a good question, and I while I obviously have no definitive information on other satellite companies, I will say that spatial resolution isn't everything. The higher you go, you give up temporal resolution and area coverage, which is key for Planet's monitoring mission. There's also plenty of other phenomenologies to go after - for example Blacksky announced their next-gen constellation will have SWIR. And for us, the thermal is really only possible since we are already capturing such high resolution visible (due to the long wavelength of LWIR).

So... the easy part of this is the resolution of the focal plane array. Gigapixel CMOS is easy/cheap. Then there’s the diffraction limit of the optics. They’ll have to be huge to get a small GSD. But the biggest physical limitation is always getting the data back down to earth. How have you grown a link budget to match your resolution?

Great observation! One of the biggest challenges for high resolution satellite imaging, even beyond the optics, is getting all those pixels down. Fortunately, the ground station infrastructure has blown up recently with Big Tech offerings like AWS Ground Station and Azure Orbital, plus legacy providers like KSAT, so there is plenty of access to get data down through Ka-band.

Just getting a rough idea here: 10cm gsd at 200km elev with 500nm wavelength requires a 1m aperture to hit the diffraction limit. If you use 40dbi phased arrays at 100W you get -40dbm at the receiver and hit the noise floor at about 100gbps, which is 40km2 of raw photos per second of downlink. So i guess it’s not whole earth observation, but definitely a lot of capability for pre-tasked observation. But then we have to ask, why satellites rather than aerial drones? A satellite is on a relatively fixed trajectory that hits any given target for 11 minutes of every 90, and the same with the ground station if you’re lucky enough to have both on the same trajectory. What is the use case where this is cheaper or superior (aside from no-fly zones)?

The people you're snooping on don't hear any buzzing quadcopter rotors overhead.

This is really interesting and I have no doubt the applications are gigantic across a whole suite of industries. I do however have a question about your final statement around creating a commoditised market for high-res imagery. How do you see this evolving over time on what is essentially privatised satellite infrastructure?

You note the parallel with GPS - but this is a 'free spinoff' developed by and for the US govt (and still bankrolled by the US taxpayer) rather than something owned and run by private enterprise. GPS was never developed explicitly with profit in mind. In GPS, the end user also 'owns' their gps traces, in that they can choose to share them with 3rd parties freely. Additionally, there is no value discrimination in gps - all traces are treated the same by the infrastructure owners regardless of how valuable they are (no one is charged more if they use the gps on their phone to enable lots of apps vs someone who only uses it for a single thing). Imagery data on the other hand is much more likely to have different value depending on what is being imaged (there is more value in an image of a busy port than there is of a random patch of empty ocean).

My feeling is that the high res imagery market right now feels more like the market for satellite automatic identification system (AIS) data used in maritime. AIS data is expensive because it is gate-kept by a relatively small number of satellite companies who charge a premium for access and carefully guard how that data is used by onward parties - completely unlike GPS.

As in AIS, because a small number of imagery companies will not only own the infrastructure, but also the images produced by that infrastructure, I'm not sure how it can be commoditised in the same way GPS has been - unless you plan to charge a low flat fee for essentially all images regardless of what they depict and what they are used for?

While it’s definitely true GPS is a “free spinoff” of a government service (ie not really free), it is accessed by developers through a platform you purchase that translate that GPS signal into useable data (ie your phone, your car, other things you purchase of which GPS is “available”). In that lens, we foresee a similar use for satellite imagery data, gathered through a platform, ours or other satellite service providers, and made available to other users. The cost of entry for utilizing GPS is hidden under these platforms and service taxes, and we look to develop a low cost of entry for utilizing satellite imagery for platforms to use and burgeon; hence the example of things the engineers building GPS never expected their data would be used for! I’ve spotted a few commenters on here who are hoping to use low-cost imagery for just that.

Great points! The GPS analogy is definitely not 1-to-1. Our main point with the analogy is this: when GPS technology was developed, there was no foresight of applications like Tinder, Uber, Pokemon Go, which all would not be possible without GPS. So in that sense, we expect that if we are able to push satellite imagery in the direction of becoming a commodity, this will unlock applications we have no foresight of today. SVB & Space Capital released a great report on this idea called The GPS Playbook

>> (there is more value in an image of a busy port than there is of a random patch of empty ocean)

Tell that to the military. There are people who will pay serious money for a particular patch of ocean if it can be done reliably at an exact time.

This sounds awesome! There are lots of applications in places like local government. One potential problem with offering _only_ commodified whip-out-your-credit card pricing is that innovative business units inside large orgs can’t make use of your product, since they need to motivate for budget and generally procure for specific deliverables.

AWS has addressed this by making it possible to buy a 3 year compute ‘asset’ which you can record as a capital expense rather than an operating expense.

Pay attention to pricing your product in a way that enables your customers to buy it!

Fantastic point! We're emphasizing the whip-out-your-credit-card-to-pay model as a departure from the existing industry sales cycle, but we don't expect this to be the only pricing mechanism customers would like.

On the AWS topic, we've similarly seen a good amount of reception around a credits-based system.

> Pay attention to pricing your product in a way that enables your customers to buy it!

You're absolutely correct and thank you for the feedback!

Here is an article about the regulation change allowed Albedo to deploy such high resolution commercial satellites.

[0] https://spacenews.com/commerce-department-releases-streamlin...

As someone who has to manage sites across the country, sometimes it behooves us to draw out own layout maps for various reasons. Finding decent overhead imagery is insanely difficult. This sounds ideal. Just give me a decent resolution overhead image and call it a day. Too many companies want to get deeply involved in the process.

I'm assuming (as a US based company) that you're still required to feed all data to the National Reconnaissance Office (https://www.nro.gov). Has that policy changed as well?

Edit: apparently NRO doesn't host their website on the bare domain.

I want. There is some imagery that I want to look at very regularly, weekly/daily if possible, but cannot get ahold of easily. (Land use issues near family property). At a 15$ minimum, I will put in several personal orders on day one.

> By the time our first few satellites run out of fuel, on-orbit refueling will be a reality, and we can just refill our tanks.

Are there any companies you're aware of that are working on this currently?

If this doesn't materialize in the timeframe you expect, how would that affect your business model? Would you need to raise prices to cover the additional cost of launching new spacecraft to replace old ones that run out of fuel and de-orbit after X years?

This seems like a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem - even if on-orbit refueling becomes commercialized by the time your spacecraft runs out of fuel, you'll need to launch with whatever hardware is necessary to allow the "tanker" spacecraft to dock and transfer propellant. Defining that interface in such a way that spacecraft from multiple companies can all be refueled by a single "tanker" spacecraft seems tricky both from a technical angle as well as from a political/social one.

There is a ton of effort currently being put into the on-orbit servicing world. Orbit Fab is leading the way on providing the fuel depots, and a number of other companies are developing the robotics required to send servicing satellites in between Orbit Fab depots and the satellites they are filling up. Worst case, if the refueling is still a few years out by the time we need it, we would increase our orbit to extend our satellite lifetime (at the cost of lower spatial resolution).

I'm a spacecraft thermal engineer (not in remote sensing), and this sentence leapt out at me. Do you have any example papers on microbolometer advances you could share?

> We’ll also be taking advantage of advances in microbolometer technology, to eliminate the crazy cooling requirements that have made thermal satellites so expensive in the past.

I don't have any papers offhand, but the wikipedia page on microbolometers is great. Traditional sensors for thermal imaging are made of materials like InSb and HgCdTe, which require cooling to cryogenic temperatures in order to limit dark noise. These types of sensors are similar to visible sensors where an electron is generated for each incident photon. Microbolometers operate fundamentally differently, where electrical resistance in response to temperature changes. While most space thermal sensors today still use traditional materials, most terrestrial thermal cameras (night-vision, thermal drones) use microbolometers when imaging in LWIR.

This is cool. We have been working with Satellite imagery (and some SAR) since mid-2020. Though costly, it is not so difficult, these days, to just task or buy archives of high-resolution imagery (~50cm). However, we are always on the look-out for more economical and multiple sources of imagery for use in Agriculture.

What is the best possible way to email you so I can have it and searchable in future to refer back to you (when you are ready for commercial release)?

Here is something I learnt recently. High-Resolution imagery are sleek and nice. This, actually, turns out to be a victim-of-success scenario where potential customers expects such imagery for the sake of it but they won't pay and, honestly, don't need it to be so clear (especially in Agriculture). We realized that the data from a 3-meter resampled is good enough for most needs.

Yeah great point, there are a number of agriculture applications that have no need for this level of spatial resolution. Certain high value crops only use drones today due to the resolution, so we'll be able to support those applications. Additionally, there's ways to combine visible + thermal to evaluate water crop stress to detect potential irrigation issues or improvements.

Feel free to fill out the Contact Us form on the website and we'll keep you updated as we get closer towards commercial release!

>Certain high value crops only use drones today due to the resolution, so we'll be able to support those applications.

For a farm sized area, wouldn't an autonomous drone be a lot cheaper&better?

This is not a binary answer; it depends. It is also not "satellites or drones"; both can be used as complementary based on the degree of data precision needed and the budget in hand.

Aren't drones cheaper and better?

I guess drones are much more expensive. You can buy a satellite tasking plan for much less than a continuously running drone campaign for the same area.

Of course drones are better, as in having an arbitrarily high resolution and being 100% under your control.

If I have a 2 sq km farm that I want pictures of once a week that will cost me $1500 through Albedo. Drones can be had for half that. I don't know that there's an out of the box solution that can automate it, but it seems like the better long term solution.

I believe the drones with a camera that can take such high precision shots (assuming hyperspectral) will cost lot more than that. For quick reference, check out DJI's Agri Drones[1].

For context; we talked to a few tea growers in the eastern side of India. They spend north of $150,000 - $200,000 on drones and UAVs to track/collect data over 20,000 hectares of tea farms. Our sample satellite date can do the same at a fraction of the cost though the precision drops by about 10%. The idea then now is to combine satellite imagery solution + occasional high-precision drone sweeps.

1. https://ag.dji.com/

I don't think I understand how pricing works, but at the most expensive level, it seems to be $15/km^2, so 2 km^2 once a week would be $30/week, right?

I believe, his calculation is roughly at $30 per week x 4 weeks per month x 12 months a year.

Anyway, the cost of a 3-meter resolution loaded with multispectral bands and metadata will be just about a dollar per sqkm or even less.

Are there any use cases of satellite imagery that you think will emerge but haven't yet due to current costs?

I think wedn3sday hit some of the key use cases we're personally excited about!

Agriculture is an interesting use case we're also excited about! While it's one of the most obvious applications, adoption has been curbed through historically high minimum order sizes, where cost is an implicit factor. Some providers require up to a 250 sq. km minimum order area, which already prices out a lot of small time farmers. We're hoping to reduce our minimum order area to 1 sq. km. and help enable this semi-neglected portion of the market. One company we're excited about in this space is Enveritas, a company looking using geospatial data to push for sustainability within the global coffee industry.

That's just one I can think of from the top of my head!

At Monitoro[0] we've been asked for satellite imagery monitoring (geographic change detection). Supplier prices were prohibitive but I'm glad to see activity in this space (pun non intended) and we're considering pursuing it at some point.

[0]: https://monitoro.xyz

- Environmental activists holding large corps responsible for illegal dumping. - Tracking illegal fishing operations. - Tracking migrant animal flocks. - All sorts of litigation surrounding land-use.

I worked with a startup using satellite imagery around illegal dumping and land use litigation, and affiliated with a university looking at illegal fishing! For some types of illegal dumping open satellite data gets you a long way even with 10m pixels: the real difficulty is getting actions taken or proof of who's doing it when its not the landowner.

I think the 10cm resolution could be as significant in opening up new use cases.

That sounds amazing, thanks for sharing!

I was thinking about building a low-code SaaS to make analyzing such imagery simpler and more accessible. Think of LabView in a browser. A graphical programming environment that compiles to Python, so that the whole Pandas and AI universe was available and simple analysis and data presentation workflows could be built by anyone. Input daily imagery, automatically output time-series graphs, curve fits, augmentation by other data sources (stocks, weather, AIS, etc), ... seems like a natural combination to me, but maybe I’m too excited over my own idea?

I have to admit though, having earned a physics PhD in a laser lab, I would much prefer to work on optics and satellite tech than software ;-)

Like a Jupyter notebook but for satellite imagery? I think a good number of people may have taken your idea and ran with it :)

Google Earth Engine, Astraea, Descartes Labs, and a whole host of other companies have demonstrated a ton of value in this space, so you're absolutely correct. There's definitely work to be done fusing in other data sources like AIS, but I think the foundation is set.

Let us know if you end up building it - we'd be more than happy to float you some test data!

Satellite imaging is used by a lot of researchers and non-profits to analyze concentration camps in North Korea[0] and it's one of the few sources that we have access to. Would you consider offering free-of-charge images of these camps to researchers and human rights organisations?

[0] https://www.aaas.org/resources/geospatial-technologies-and-h...

[0] https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/12000/asa24010201...

100p! Human rights issues is an area where we think higher resolution will be super helpful, and we are planning to make our archive data freely available for these types of applications as well as large discounts on tasking.

Please make it available free/cheaply for archaeology and historical research too.

The number of times I want to trace something but can't off Google Maps because of the license terms for using their aerial view, or need a higher resolution version, is becoming far too common.

oh come one.. if you can't even pay 20 euros for working on defending freedom, why would you expect other people do give their life for it.

Perhaps some people live in a lower cost of living area where 20 euros represents the majority disposable income for the month. I would bet most people on HN come no where near donating 5% of their income to charity despite needing less than 50% of their income to subsistence level live

People don't have to give their lives if you can divert thousands of dollars in required costs (over time) to good equipment, analyst salaries, etc.

This looks really cool and congrats on the launch.

A few questions.

How big do you foresee your constellation being?

How fair is the comparison in your Google Photos link? The image on the right seems to have significant artifacting that looks more a side effect of compression.

Thanks! Our initial constellation will be 24 satellites, which will enable 2-3 revisits per day to areas of interest.

We used a drone to capture this image at our representative resolution (10cm), but it only captures in JPEG so there could be compression artifacts from that. The image on the right is a 1/3 downsampled version to show 30cm resolution.

So your sample image, isn’t real?

Which reminds me, wouldn’t drones always be able to capture better imagery due to lower altitude? It’s my understanding Google maps is all done from aircraft on the higher resolutions.

It's generally harder to keep drones aloft 24/7 though. Also then subject to more stringent airspace laws.

Signaling encouragement.

Since much of the tech stack you describe seems to be offered by Planet, (and having experienced the delays and sticker-shock associated with the salesperson-driven enterprise sales process with such companies firsthand), might the industry evolve in such a way that Albedo act as a priceline.com / overstock 'off-brand' reseller of Planet's existing data pipelines? Does developing your own tech-stack basically give you 'table stakes' i.e. signaling a viable alternative to sales channel conversations with existing satellite imagery providers?

Thanks for the encouragement!

I would say that the industry is already trending towards more of a third-party reseller model with companies like Arlula, UP42, Astraea, and numerous others. While we do see the benefits of being able to offer multiple sources of satellite data (virtual constellations combining high-res, low-res, SAR, hyperspectral, etc.) we want to limit our attention to doing one thing extremely well: providing high-res visible imagery.

To your point of developing our own tech-stack for "table stakes" - we certainly hope so. Planet has done a lot of fantastic work here as far as developing robust imagery pipelines but stopped short of removing salespeople from the process. We're hoping to take their approach a step further and remove that manual (human) component from both the sales process and delivery pipelines.

Hope that helps!

One area to look into would be flight simulators such as Infinite Flight https://infiniteflight.com and others, that need global satellite data for their flight sim world.

Microsoft entered the flight sim space with MS Flight Simulator last year, and was able to leverage their massive set of Bing data, so any smaller flight sim out there that uses ortho textures would very possibly be interested in "better, cheaper, and faster" imagery.

Great idea! This is the first time I've heard of Infinite Flight, so I'll definitely reach out. We've actually spoken with the company responsible for turning Bing data into the 3D renderings in MS Flight Simulator. We think they're excited!

> While working at Facebook, Winston sometimes dealt with imagery delivered through FTP servers or physical hard drives.

My company is a consumer of remote sensing data and we get basically all of our data from FTP. A more modern delivery mechanism would be very useful. If you can achieve data locality by downlinking data directly into AWS (groundstation) I could see that as a great benefit for customers who run their infrastructure in AWS. Especially as you get sparser data, data locality becomes a larger and larger issue.

> Today, buying commercial satellite imagery involves a back-and-forth with a salesperson in a sometimes months-long process, with high prices that exclude all but the biggest companies.

As a consumer of remote sensing data, my company has identified the data ordering process as one of our largest barriers to scaling our business. Our end goal is very similar to yours: we want our services to be available to anyone with a credit card and the full process should be automated. Currently, all remote sensing data has to be manually ordered which means we can never fully automate until our data providers automate.

Let me know if you have any questions on our use-cases for data providers. I have put a contact email in my bio.

Sounds like your experience aligns very much with what we're trying to build for and solve! I'll reach out through your email right now :)

Sounds very cool. Curious to know your thoughts on offloading data from the satellites - 9x resolution sounds a whole lot like 9x the data. Is this challenging, or also easier since you're low altitude?

Are you building up your own ground network for collection, or planning to use a third party service?

Likewise as a SATCOM antenna designer, I'm curious to know what constellation designers such as yourselves think of the current 'big dish' gateway infrastructure.

Indeed a 9x in resolution is a big ol chunk of data, and primarily, increases in the bands collected (PAN vs RGB vs NIIR vs LWIR vs hyperspectral/multispectral) data is one piece of a complicated puzzle of how to get data to the ground. Previous entrants have spent a lot of money building out their own networks and infrastructure, helping contribute to high costs of imagery. We look to leverage the ground-station-as-a-service industries such as AWS, KSAT, and Azure Orbital to help downlink our data. Add to that a switch over to Ka band (higher bandwidth) with inter-satellite links in the tradespace, you start to help the data problem. As well, every image provider does some amount of lossless compression (compressing the non-informative data) to help manage some of that. But the overall data to manage is also a factor of how much tasking you anticipate per rev, if the image you collected is actually useful (ie clouds), if the customer is interested in all those bands for their task, and many more variables.

In terms of the 'big dish' gateway infrastructure, it eases link budgets and opens bigger pipes, but if you're limited in your output power and your access, having smaller dishes and more proliferated networks may make more sense (sounds similar to your Big satellite vs many small satellite trades :) )

It would be very useful for some users if you could use either real stereo camera setup or a sort of effective one (i.e. structure from motion) to generate digital elevation/terrain models at high resolution. If you don't want to do the work (understandable to focus on just one thing) at least giving enough information that others can work from what you have would be great.

If the first few satellites are flying in 2024, what technology do you have already? In other words, how are you able to provide a comparison shot vs status quo today if the satellites aren’t up yet?

On the timeline scale, if your satellites are only going up in 3 years, is there any reason to believe competitors won’t catch up to your imagery quality?

Btw congrats on trying to democratize access beyond complex sales processes. I hope it works out for you!

The comparison shot was taken with a drone at an altitude that corresponds to our 10cm resolution. The 30cm version was obtained through downsampling the 10cm image.

Other companies could potentially drive towards higher resolution, but spatial resolution isn't everything. You give up temporal resolution (revisit rates) and overall area coverage, so we expect some companies to continue to cater to the lower resolution type applications.

Your pitch sounds amazing and I can't wait to see more details about the tech - and, of course, the pictures.

I have one question though:

> By the time our first few satellites run out of fuel, on-orbit refueling will be a reality, and we can just refill our tanks. We’re still in the architecture and design phase, but we expect to have our first few satellites flying in 2024 and the full constellation up in 2027.

How do you envision that to work, Δv-wise? Is there a way to make refueling a fleet of small satellites more energy-efficient than just launching a new fleet? Are you betting on fuel being sourced off-world, and a tanker persistently in space, to not have to pay for launching a fueled tanker from Earth?

(Also: are you hiring and does one have to be a US citizen? :))

Great question. Orbit Fab plans to launch fuel depots into space, somewhat aligned with orbits of their customers. For most cubesat/smallsat constellations, it probably does make more sense to just launch a new fleet. Our satellites will be refrigerator size and a bit pricier, so it makes more sense to refuel and extend the life. Yeah check out our careers page!

I'd bring up the same issue I make to all start-ups.

I'd like to see your code of ethics.

Like so many technologies today, this could be used by the dark side. You have a responsibility to consider that and put the principles in place to prevent that. Now.

We appreciate you bringing this up - we’re acutely aware of the privacy implications and potential for abuse/misuse. There isn’t a straightforward or easy answer to this, but we want to be ahead of the curve and not repeat the mistakes that other companies have made in the past. We expect this to be an on-going, evolving issue over time, but also something we want to start thinking about from day one. As far as practical steps, we’ll be approving new customers on a case-by-case basis, building our robust internal tools to find bad actors, as well as the obvious measures of adding punitive clauses to our terms and conditions. We know that’s not enough and we’d love to hear any other ideas folks have on this. The positive applications related to climate and human rights issues are exciting, but we realize we have to properly address privacy and misuse prevention before we can start to open those former conversations. In terms of personal privacy, 10cm resolution does enable one to identify a person (you can detect people in good sun conditions, but not identify).

One of them has already worked on the so-called "dark side". I doubt they are going to refuse sales to anyone unless there are ITAR or sanctions involved.

I would like to second this. How do you ensure this data and service won't be used to spread evil?

Would be very helpful to understand a few aspects that are common hurdles for small sat constellation companies. How much will each of your sats cost? What is the projected development cost to launch your first satellite? Or What will you need to raise from investors to get one satellite in orbit? What is your strategy for de-risking what sounds like a lot of new tech before your first launch? When does the first, to spec satellite fly (not including hosted payloads)? Why LWIR over MWIR? How would you respond to competitors claiming claiming similar thermal imaging resolution (MWIR)?

From an oil industry perspective, it would be very fun to play with this data over the Permian Basin. I reviewed Planet’s offerings and the resolution was insufficient. And thermal unlocks some more possibilities.

Interesting approach! I'm curious about your sample image comparison. You mentioned in response to another comment that it was taken by a drone and the image on the right was downsampled by a factor of 3 to mimic the resolution of currently available satellite images. However, the image on the left has artifacting that looks reminiscent of deep learning-based methods for deblurring, denoising, or super-sampling. Is the image on the left actually a raw drone image? How much of the stated 9x improvement (actually 3x) is hardware/sensor-based vs software-based?

It is a raw drone image. I probably should have picked a different option, as this was collected just after sunset, which gives a nice uniform lighting but also leads to more noise and some of those artifacts you mention.

The resolution improvement has nothing to do with software (although there are super-resolution methods to improve it). It has to do with both flying very low as well as building a larger telescope than normal. While the satellites will still be much smaller than the traditional approach to capturing 10cm resolution, they will be larger than the new space smallsat movement we've been seeing the last few years.

Thanks! Good luck. I'm excited to see where this goes!

I have a demo website that is "4-clicks" to ordering satellite imagery. Include one for the data type, and one for the date.

Contact me by email if you would like a demo. (I'm trying to avoid HN overload.)

I don't see your e-mail address anywhere. I'm interested in such a product.

Non rapid updates to HN profile, I guess.

hncollector@ and the domain is bitminer.ca

Have you considered making satellite imagery available to the OpenStreetMap community in order to help improve the map?

Microsoft already makes their Bing satellite imagery available to map makers.

Yup, we're planning on it! Longtime admirers of the HOTOSM/OSM community and would love to contribute towards the mission.

If you know of anyone within HOTOSM who would be interested in talking, please tell them to email info@albedo.space

Thank's for the reply! I'll see what I can do.

I would consider myself straddling the hobbyist/professional line in geospatial computer vision, where high-resolution imagery is very much needed but very expensive.

I have lots of small projects I want to work on, but can't bring myself to pay $20-30/km^2 with a high minimum coverage area. Would Albedo help this very small section of the market?

I'd like to continue on these side projects and hopefully use it to build something greater, but the high entry costs make experimentation difficult.

This is exactly what we want to enable! We're hoping to offer 1 sq. km. minimum order sizes (for tasking, archive will have no minimum) to help grow both the hobbyist and even commercial applications as best as we can.

Just curious: have you looked into third-party resellers? They typically have low minimum order sizes and are fairly reasonable, even with a smaller budget.

As a potential consumer of this kind of data it would be valuable to know how much of the US you can cover. If the revisit rate is every 12 days, do I get all the US every 12 days? What if I want it all at a lower resolution?

My suggestion is to have different verticals on the product page and to show specs from their perspective. One for the hedge fund counting cars in parking lots, one for the cops trying to find a missing person, one for the amateur sleuths investigating crop circles.

Thanks for the suggestion! We are currently working with some partner customers on featuring their applications on our site.

Quick definition of how revisit rate is used across the industry: it denotes how often a satellite has the opportunity to image an area. So with our full constellation, we'll have a revisit rate of 2-3 times per day for latitudes < 60 deg N/S (info on the website), meaning you could put a tasking order over a certain area for that frequency. Although we expect most of our applications to need something more like a weekly cadence for image collects.


I do geospatial data science, specifically feature extraction from LiDAR, imagery (near earth), satellite, pretty much whatever.

Do you have any sample data you are distributing? Also, what are your thoughts on collaborations for white papers?

Looks good. I'm interested in what the cost comparison is with say digital globe.

This sounds really cool! I don't understand the pricing, though: it sounds like the $2 plan is the obvious choice: no minimum order, and you can request what seems to be a fairly unlimited number of images. I would assume that to get $2/km^2 you'd need to have a larger minimum, otherwise, what's the point of the $15 plan?

Great question. The 3 tiers correspond to how much imagery is ordered per year, the more you order the cheaper the per unit price is. The "minimum order" corresponds to the area size on the ground for a single tasking order (a single image).

From what I know satellite images we use are limited by government regulations, they are already 4-5 times more clear than what we see, so that may be a big roadblock for the idea?

have you got the regulatory approvals? and any roadmaps? most rules changes by area and region like in India images are really blurry due to regulations.

Is there an email we can use to contact you? Or, can you email me at $HNusername at gmail?

Looks nice! Apologies if this is a very naive question, I'm not well versed into satellites so the only thing I can think about is Starlink. Will there be any light pollution? If so, how do you plan to address it?

I'm not the OP but I used to track & observe satellites, my guess is mostly no.

A satellite needs appropriate angle from sun to it's solar panels[0] to create any light pollution (or satellite flare, depending on what side you're looking from). Since OP's satellites won't be first in their class (We've got Maxar, Planet etc.) I don't think they will have any considerable impact on general light pollution. Actually, there's a lot of satellites "orbiting" at anytime but very little of them generate flares.

Problem with Starlink it's number of satellites are quite high (42k planned) and they got "persistent brightness".

Wikipedia article about satellite flares (it's short) : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satellite_flare


Thanks for the answer!

How on earth do you do on-orbit refueling? I've never heard of that outside of science fiction.

Though this is really a tug rather than propellant transfer:


But not so sci-fi.

you don't do it on earth :)

Have you thought about allowing your imagery to be used to add information to OpenStreetMap?

Absolutely! We're definitely admirers of the HOTOSM/OSM community and would love to contribute towards the mission. If you know of anyone within HOTOSM who would be interested in talking, please tell them to email info@albedo.space

But how do you pronounce the name of your company? Al-bay-doh, Al-bee-doh? I must know!

Al-bee-dough. Origin: it's a term for how much light is reflected off of a surface (the average for earth is 30%)

Maybe I missed it on your website or your post, but when will you be up and running?

From the post:

We’re still in the architecture and design phase, but we expect to have our first few satellites flying in 2024 and the full constellation up in 2027.

How is what you will offer different / better / cheaper than Planet?

I'll assume you're referencing SkySat imagery, as that's the more direct comparison to our product!

Different is more of an over-arching theme, so I'll focus on how we're better and cheaper. We are better in the sense that our native resolution will be 25x finer than theirs - Planet SkySats have 50cm native GSD and our satellites will have 10cm native GSD. This is "better" in the sense that we're more resolute, but we do sacrifice coverage.

As far as cheaper goes, the commercial space industry has made a lot of progress in the past 10 years, and as a result, getting to space has gotten substantially cheaper. This may be slightly oversimplified, but we're hoping cheaper costs for us will transfer over to our users.

What is the image latency? Can you live stream?

Use case: following a person in real-time

Doubtful - OP notes in another comment that they will get 2/3 revisits to an area of interest per day - so every 8-12hrs ish.

Real time following (a la Will Smith in Enemy of the State) from satellite imagery remains fictional at present.

The balance of coverage vs resolution is largely dependent on satellite constellation altitude. Higher altitude = more coverage but worse resolution. More satellites also gives better coverage, but adds cost. To get enough coverage for streaming at high enough resolution for tracking an individual person needs a) an infeasibly large satellite constellation b) improvements to image resolution so higher altitudes (and thus better coverage with fewer satellites) c) guaranteed clear skies (for imagery data at least).

Exactly. Lots of trade-offs in remote sensing. We're bullish on SAR to clean up on monitoring applications, due to the ability to see through clouds and at night. As that plays out, high res optical will be even more important for context when SAR detects some sort of change (then optical can be used to see what caused the change).

Solve cloud problem and you won't have to worry about clients.

15 dollars per square kilometer is quite affordable for this level of resolution! Is there any info about satellite coverage or plans that you can share?

Glad to hear that! We have details on our coverage and specs here, https://www.albedo.space/product-specs

Farm crop management

It feels alot like the image used in the example is contrived. The image quality is about the same for the google maps view on my place.

could you perhaps try with a real comparison at : https://photos.app.goo.gl/gwokp4WT8JPvyue98

or explain why its the same image psd'ed to low rez?

The comparison shot was taken with a drone at an altitude that corresponds to our 10cm resolution. The 30cm version was obtained through downsampling the 10cm image accordingly. I wish we had a real 10cm satellite image to use, but our satellites won't be on orbit until 2024, so we are using a drone to show examples in the meantime.

How do citizens protect their privacy as imaging gets better and more available?

The fields of archaeology and anthropology would benefit greatly from this.

What resolution is allowed to share with public?

let's just say publicly available today. Surely the spooks have better tech.

I wonder if you would accept some small capital from a friendly developer that wants to invest in a small company and see how his investment turns out in 10 years. If so, https://twitter.com/diaspar3 DM me

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