What do satellites have to do with farm yields, oil leakages or greenhouse gas emissions? Enough and more for Pixxel Space, a Bengaluru based space-tech startup, to put as many as 30 mini-refrigerator sized observation satellites into orbit around Earth over the next three years.
Satellites have been used for decades now to monitor and understand the evolution of Earth. Government agencies have used them to track life-threatening environmental situations from cyclones and wildfires to sand storms and the melting of glaciers. Pixxel Space wants to take the capabilities satellites offer to the next level.
“We want to send satellites up, bring high quality data down, and make sure that this data is used to check how the health of the planet is changing across different sectors,” the three-year-old startup’s co-founder and CEO Awais Ahmed told TechCircle.
Pixxel Space, he said, is building satellites that can capture 10 to 50 times richer imagery than existing satellites, allowing private organizations to see and address issues that are often missed and end up causing financial and environmental impact.
“If I were to look at agricultural land with existing data, the only thing I can do is identify the health status of the crops. Whether the crop is doing, bad, or moderately fine,” Ahmed said.
The 23-year-old entrepreneur founded Pixxel Space in February 2019 with collegemate Kshitij Khandelwal.
Pixxel Space uses hyperspectral imaging to capture data in hundreds of wavelengths in the entire visible and infrared range and provide detailed information such as the nutrient content of the soil, species of the crop, whether the farm is adequately irrigated, among other things. This kind of data could not only help big farm owners correct their practices, for instance, choosing the right kind of fertilizer, but also enable the government to predict the yield of the farm.
“If the yield is predicted accurately, the government can better plan what to import, what to export, while insurance companies can better validate if a loan would be repaid or not,” Ahmed said, noting that seed companies, fertilizer companies, hedge funds, and commodity traders can also benefit from the technology.
And this is just the use case for one sector.
The startup’s satellite constellation could also prove effective in the oil and gas industry, enabling companies to detect natural gas leakages, oil leakages, and underground pipeline leakages. Further, the technology could even be used by governments and non-profits to track greenhouse gas emissions, including what kind of gases are being emitted by factories, the concentration of these gases, and how those impact temperature changes, water health, and tree health -- all from space.
While Ahmed had an innate liking for space technology, he was particularly motivated to launch his own space venture after visiting the factory of SpaceX, the Elon Musk led rocket ship venture, 2017. He was one of the founding members of the BITS Pilani team that made it to the finals of SpaceX’s hyperloop challenge in California.
“Once I came back from there, I started experimenting with satellite data and that's when I stumbled upon the fact that if someone were to do hyperspectral imaging from space, there is a lot of value to be unlocked,” he said.
Then he got in touch with Khandelwal, also member of the hyperloop team, and the two founded Pixxel Space. Investors came calling in soon after. In June 2019, they got started with $700,000 from Techstars, growX ventures and others. In August the following year, the founders raised $5 million in a seed funding round led by Blume Ventures, growX Ventures and Lightspeed India. And in March this year, the startup raised another $2.3 million from Omnivore and other investors as part of the same seed round.
The startup is using the capital raised to get its planned constellation of 30 satellites ready for launch in low-Earth orbit. Two will blast off by the end of this year, 7-10 will follow next year, while the remaining would launch by mid-2023, Ahmed said. All will be as big as mini refrigerators, weighing between 15 kilograms and 50 kilograms, he added.
Once the constellation becomes operational, Pixxel Space will provide raw or processed hyperspectral data using a dedicated platform. Customers could simply sign in and place an order by defining their monitoring requirements. If the data order frequency is set to weekly or monthly, the company will charge customers on a recurring subscription basis.
Ahmed did confirm that Pixxel Space is running a pilot with less than a handful of enterprise clients and is in talks with more than 50 prospective enterprise clients, mostly overseas. He didn’t share the names of the clients or how much the company plans to charge them.
“We are increasing the information available by up to 50 times by keeping the price largely unchanged,” he said.
In the initial years of operation, Ahmed expects Pixxel Space would generate revenue in the high tens of millions of dollars. After two to three years, this is likely to increase to hundreds of millions of dollars per year, he said.
Currently, no other private organization is operational in the field of hyperspectral imaging. Only space agencies such as NASA, ESA, and ISRO operate such satellites.
“We believe that hyperspectral satellite imagery data represents that leap ahead, delivering a significant improvement over 30x30 RGB data. Pixxel’s 5x5 meter hyperspectral data sets can deliver tremendous value to smallholder farmers and the agribusiness ecosystem,” Mark Kahn from Omnivore, one of the backers of Pixxel, told TechCircle.
“Space-tech startups like Pixxel can identify key interventions to transform Indian agriculture while also monitoring potential risks for farmers. The coming years will see more investments in this versatile technology,” he added.
Beyond tracking earthly elements, Pixxel Space’s hyperspectral imaging system could also be used for deep-space observation and tracking features of distant planetary bodies.
“We can, theoretically, orbit a satellite around the moon and say that here is where ice is available, here is where helium is available. We can do it on Mars too, guiding people trying to land on those bodies or setting up habitats,” Ahmed said.
Even though this seems to be the logical next step for the company, the founder emphasized that they won’t be doing any work in this area for at least next five years. For now, Earth imaging remains the main focus. Once that goes mainstream, Pixxel Space would look at deep space observation and start with the tracking of near-Earth asteroids, which could help the company identify rocks that could be mined for building habitats on distant planets.
“Now I am talking about 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years down the line. It is going to take time for the market to develop, for the technology to mature,” Ahmed said.