Startup with SoftBank, Airbus investment planning video constellation with several hundred satellites

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WASHINGTON — A satellite startup that today announced SoftBank, Airbus, Bill Gates and OneWeb founder Greg Wyler as investors says it has plans to field a constellation of hundreds of satellites to provide global video of the Earth, but provided few details on how it will accomplish that goal.

EarthNow spun out of the business incubator Intellectual Ventures last year with a mission to record the planet and provide video in real time to users on the ground. Airbus is the company’s manufacturing partner, using production lines made to build thousands of telecom satellites for OneWeb in Toulouse, France and Exploration Park, Florida.

Russell Hannigan, EarthNow’s founder and chief executive, told SpaceNews the company will provide 20 frames per second video at a “highly competitive” resolution in full color “and a little bit more.”

“We live in a world where people increasingly want immediacy,” Hannigan said. “I want it now, I don’t want it in three or four days time. That’s what we are addressing.”

EarthNow Russell Hannigan
Russell Hannigan, founder and CEO of EarthNow. Credit: EarthNow

Hannigan wouldn’t say how much the system will cost, how many satellites will be necessary to start initial service, or when the company hopes to conduct its first launch. Similar to Maxar Technologies’ WorldView Legion constellation, EarthNow is staying very private about the details of its system to keep information away from competitors.

Using the same manufacturing infrastructure as OneWeb to mass produce satellites will help keep costs low, he said. Hannigan described the price of the satellite bus as “the same ballpark price of a 6U cubesat,” but for a much higher quality spacecraft. EarthNow’s imaging payload will drive the cost slightly higher than that of a OneWeb telecom satellite, which is estimated at around $1 million each, he said. Hannigan declined to say who would provide the imaging payload.

“We created the world’s first low-cost, high-performance satellites for mass-production to bridge the digital divide,” Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder and executive chairman, said in an April 18 statement. “These very same satellite features will enable EarthNow to help humanity understand and manage its impact on Earth.”

EarthNow says its upgraded version of the OneWeb platform has “more CPU cores than all other commercial satellites combined.” Hannigan said Airbus is building the satellites using an enhanced version of the OneWeb bus produced by OneWeb Satellites, the Airbus-OneWeb joint venture that is building OneWeb’s constellation.

A central challenge for EarthNow will be handling the massive amounts of data its video satellites will capture. Hannigan said the satellites will process data in-situ so that they can “dramatically reduce bandwidth by several orders of magnitude.”

The satellites will also have a more advanced means of parsing desired information from collected video.

“We are not bragging about how much data we collect,” he said. “We’re about trying to get as close to the final answer as the customer wants. We will be able to show you continuous video of a lot of places around the world, but in addition to the video it’s a machine vision system that allows us in real time to extract information from what the imager sees and send that to the user.”

Hannigan wouldn’t describe the EarthNow ground system, which would likely require either numerous ground stations or inter-satellite links to ensure real time data delivery, saying only that “each satellite is connected to the ground at all times.”

EarthNow’s constellation “solves a lot of problems that other companies and approaches are stuck with,” he said. “We get around those problems through our technical innovation and approach. We solved the bandwidth problem, we solved the connectivity problem, and there are other things associated with regulatory that we believe we solved.”

Hannigan said EarthNow is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on licensing its constellation. He said NOAA has been “incredibly responsive” in processing the license.

EarthNow plans to target governments and businesses as customers, providing satellite video for applications such as catching illegal fishing, monitoring storms, detecting forest fires and helping boost the efficiency of interconnected “smart cities.” Having Airbus as a partner and investor is advantageous not only from a manufacturing perspective, but also because Airbus operates Earth observation satellites of its own.

“We want to leverage their channels to market,” Hannigan said.

Hannigan said EarthNow has been under development in stealth mode since 2014, and has around two dozen people, partners included, working on it at any given time. Intellectual Ventures where EarthNow started is the same incubator that in 2012 spun out Kymeta, a prominent flat panel antenna company that started shipping its product last year. Hannigan was one of the founders with Kymeta at Intellectual Ventures, he said, but doesn’t see overlap between the two companies.