Telling satellites what to do is expensive, complicated, and can only be done a few times a day.
Infostellar Inc. is aiming to change that by getting satellite operators to share their antennae. By connecting dishes around the world to create a single network, everyone from meteorologists to farmers can link up with satellites anytime, anywhere without waiting for one to pass overhead.
The Tokyo-based startup, which is assembling a global platform of antennae, just won its first funding round of $7.3 million (¥803 million), led by Airbus SE’s venture arm.
Infostellar’s network is aimed at driving down the cost of communicating with satellites. As a result, digital maps could be updated more frequently, to track people, cars and clouds in real time. Access to cheaper satellite imagery could also help investors — like those tracking manufacturing activity or crop yields through satellite photos — obtain information more regularly.
“People want to achieve many things with satellites, but right now they’re all constrained by having just one antenna and a tiny window to communicate,” said Infostellar co-founder Naomi Kurahara. The 36-year-old came up with the idea while pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, frustrated by the limited access she had to the Kyushu Institute of Technology’s satellite.
To understand the challenge, consider the two primary types of satellites. Geostationary “birds” keep a fixed position far above the Earth, making communication easy. Satellites in low-Earth orbits move across the sky, making it more difficult for terrestrial dishes to reach them. LEO satellites are typically within range of a given antenna only four times a day, for about 10 minutes at a time. That means that the owner of a single dish, like Kurahara’s school, collects data just a few times daily.
Infostellar’s technology is designed to overcome that limitation by letting satellite owners share antennae around the world. The Kyushu Institute, for example, would be able to use the software to pull in data from ground stations in Europe or Africa.
Kurahara said Infostellar’s main product — a small computer that links up to each antenna and the wider data-sharing platform — has already been built. The company plans to begin testing the device on multiple continents by the end of the year, with a full rollout by the end of 2018.
So called low-Earth-orbit birds are projected to number more than 1,000 next year, in part because they are cheaper to send up than geostationary ones. A San Francisco-based startup, Planet Labs Inc., is sending up dozens of shoebox-size satellites armed with high-power cameras that cost about $1 million apiece. Using the satellites, hedge funds can scour Wal-Mart parking lots to measure traffic flows during back-to-school shopping seasons, and farmers can assess crop health and estimate optimal harvest times.
“As we move to thousands or tens of thousands of low-Earth-orbit satellites, and the amount of data they’re gathering becomes more accessible in real time, more of us will benefit,” said Lewis Pinault, the managing investment partner for Airbus Ventures in Japan. “Any company with an interest in big data, and any individual — you, me, consumers — with an interest in accessing big data can suddenly get more access,” said Pinault, who has joined Infostellar’s board.
The global satellite industry brought in revenue of $260.5 billion last year, with the network-equipment sector growing by 7.3 percent to $10.3 billion, according to the consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology.
Kurahara has competition. RBC Signals LLC, based in Redmond, Washington, is already doing something similar, with a network of 30-plus antennae around the world. Others, like Michigan-based Atlas Space Operations Inc. and Milan-based Leaf Space, operate their own ground stations and rent them out to customers in the mining, agriculture and energy industries.
Because Infostellar is tapping into existing dishes, Kurahara contends the company’s model of sharing access among a broader network of dishes will scale better and drive costs lower by a factor of 10.
Infostellar will use the new funding to build and distribute its machines to antenna operators around the world for free. Everyone from universities to small companies and governments will get paid whenever their dishes are used to communicate with a satellite, bringing in additional revenue.
“The people who build antennae are basically those with satellites — you build it to communicate with the satellite,” Kurahara said. “When I talk to antenna owners, they’re happy to earn revenue when their antennae are unused.”
Kurahara, now chief executive officer of Infostellar, started the company in 2016 with Kazuo Ishigame and Toshio Totsuka. Five months into the venture, she found out she was pregnant. She gave birth at the end of last year, and took along her newborn son while pitching the business to Airbus investors in February, walking them through her presentation with the baby sleeping by her side. People are surprisingly supportive about combining work and child rearing, said Kurahara, who brings her son to work. “It’s all up to how you do it,” she said.