Astro Digital raises funds to develop its Earth imaging satellite system

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WASHINGTON — Astro Digital, a remote sensing company developing both its own satellite constellation and an analytics platform for that imagery, said March 2 it has raised $16.65 million to accelerate the company’s plans.

The company, based at the NASA Ames Research Park at Moffett Field, California, said it raised the Series A funding round from a group of family funds. It plans on using the funds to build out its initial constellation of small satellites that will provide medium-resolution imagery.

“With the round, we really get to daily imaging of the globe with our moderate-resolution sensor,” said Bronwyn Agrios, co-founder and head of product at Astro Digital, in an interview.

The company is finishing integration of the first two satellites of its Landmapper system, Agrios said, with a launch planned in late April or early May. “A big part of what we’re doing with this money is deploying the capital towards launches,” she said. “We’ll have 80 percent of the first constellation launched this year, which gets us to almost daily imaging.”

That initial set of 10 cubesat-class satellites will be followed by 20 larger satellites capable of providing higher resolution imagery. “We’re finalizing the engineering now and we’ll have the first one launched in the fourth quarter of this year,” Agrios said of the follow-on system.

The two sets of satellites will work together, with the medium-resolution satellites providing global daily coverage and identifying areas of interest to be imaged by the high-resolution satellites. “The goal is to have a multi-sensor constellation,” she said, allowing the company “to be really smart about how we image with the higher-resolution sensor.”

In addition to its own satellites, Astro Digital has been developing an analytics platform that processes satellite imagery to provide industry-specific information for customers. Agrios said that the agriculture market has been a key one for the company so far, but that it’s looking at additional ones, ranging from adjacent fields like crop insurance to others, such as asset monitoring, enabled by the later, high-resolution system.

That software platform currently uses data from Landsat and Sentinel satellites operated by the U.S. Geological Survey and European Space Agency, respectively, but Agrios said the company can’t rely on data from those or other satellites alone. “We talk to a lot of companies about what some of the barriers to adoption are today, and one of those barriers is reliability,” she said. “For us to be able to say that we can offer a fresh observation every day, or even every week, I need my own sensor network in order to offer that guarantee.”

The Landmapper system, she said, will increase the volume of data being incorporated into its analytics platform from a few terabytes a day to petabytes a day. (A petabyte is 1,000 terabytes.) However, Astro Digital is focused on selling information products based on that imagery, which can be integrated into other software through a protocol known as an application program interface (API), and not the images themselves.

“We don’t believe that anyone is going to be buying imagery anymore,” she said. “We believe that the future is a subscription to an API that will have information show up right in your applications.”

The funding round for Astro Digital comes as the commercial remote sensing industry is showing signs of consolidation. On Feb. 3, Planet, which operates a constellation of medium-resolution imaging cubesats, announced it was acquiring Terra Bella and its SkySat fleet of high-resolution imaging satellites from Google for an undisclosed sum. On Feb. 24, Canadian company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates announced it was acquiring DigitalGlobe for $2.4 billion in cash and stock, plus the assumption of $1.2 billion in DigitalGlobe debt.

“It would certainly appear that we are in a consolidation phase,” Agrios said of the industry, but added that the company was not looking to be acquired. She said that the company is already planning a Series B funding round for 2018 to build out the high-resolution Landmapper constellation.

“We’re heads down, we’re building, we’re not looking to get acquired,” she added, saying the Series A round would fund company operations for at least the next 12 months. “The consolidation is super interesting, and we’re keeping our eyes on it, but there are no immediate plans to try and sell the company.”