|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!