When a representative of the Skybox Imaging board of directors approached Tom Ingersoll about joining the company, he was extremely skeptical. After decades in the aerospace industry watching commercial imagery ventures fail, Ingersoll said, “You’ve got to be kidding. People have lost so much money in this industry.”
Instead of completely dismissing the idea, however, he visited Skybox when he was in San Jose, California, for an energy conference. One day spent with Skybox co-founder Dan Berkenstock and his team convinced Ingersoll that what Skybox was planning was extremely audacious but potentially feasible. He spent the next four months working with friends to scrutinize all aspects of the venture before accepting the chief executive job in July 2011.
What appealed to Ingersoll was the company’s grand vision. Skybox’s founders, who conceived the idea as graduate students at Stanford University, planned to raise hundreds of million of dollars, build satellites in-house and write their own imaging processing algorithms.
“At the time, I had opportunities to join other startups that were less risky but also less exciting,” Ingersoll said. “There are not many businesses that could have such an important impact on the way we see the world and the way we make resource allocation decisions. Skybox is going to be transformational.”
In November, Skybox sent its first Earth observation satellite, SkySat-1, into a polar-inclined, circular orbit as a secondary payload on a Russian Dnepr rocket. SkySat-2 is slated to piggyback in June on the long-delayed launch of a Russian Soyuz-Fregat carrying the Meteor M2 weather satellite. After building its first two satellites, Skybox hired Space Systems/Loral to build the next 13 spacecraft and Orbital Sciences Corp. to launch six in late 2015 on a Minotaur-C rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Skybox plans to offer customers timely access to still imagery, full-motion video and data services. The company has signed agreements with Japan Space Imaging of Tokyo and Emirates Space Imaging (ESI) of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to distribute its products. Under the agreements, Japan Space Imaging and ESI affiliates European Space Imaging and Space Imaging Middle East will install Skybox’s compact ground stations, known as SkyNodes, with 2.4-meter antennas and associated equipment to task satellites, downlink, process and distribute imagery.
Before joining Skybox, Ingersoll co-founded Universal Space Network, a global firm specializing in spacecraft telemetry, tracking and control that was acquired in 2009 by Swedish Space Corp. Ingersoll also served as a senior manager at McDonnell Douglas Corp.’s Phantom Works before the organization known for developing advanced military technology was acquired in 1997 by Boeing Co.
Ingersoll spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.
What industry are you in?
We believe our ultimate destiny is to be an information company. If you look at the staff makeup, 60 or 70 percent of our people are focused on information products. The satellite is just a sensor used to gather data that we turn into information. There may come a time when we have sensors that are not satellites. We could very well have UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. We could have fixed sensors. There are other forms of geospatial data we will pull into our data platform to provide information to our customers.
Who are your customers?
We provide information to solve hard problems and to allow people to better utilize their resources. We are looking at helping people with supply chain management, national security, disaster monitoring. We’re looking at resource management on multiple levels.
How does your business differ from traditional Earth observation ventures?
We see the market of today offering very accurate, high-resolution imagery used to make beautiful basemaps. Those have tremendous military application. What’s lacking are service-level agreements around data dependability. Not pristine data but good enough imagery that can be given to a customer whenever the customer needs it.
Does a service-level agreement mean customers can get specific data for certain days or weeks?
Yes. Whatever they need. If an organization has a critical decision to make that is based on change that’s occurring over a three-day period, we will get them data for that three-day period.
How are you showing potential customers what you will offer?
For customers who need service-level agreements on a grand scale, we are putting together the communication pipe, doing the analysis, validating the quality of the data and making sure our change-detection algorithms work. So when the constellation gets up there, boom, we’re ready to go.
Have most of your customers used Earth observation imagery before?
Yes. That surprised us a little bit. Especially in the information sector, we thought we were going to be teaching them what we can do. We found out they already understand it but can’t get the information they want.
What do they want?
Nobody wants a bunch of imagery. All they want is, in essence, the change that has occurred in an area over a fixed time period. We have three times as many people working on the data platform versus people working on the space segment. Customers want us to do analysis for them. They just want a report.
Will you need a lot of people to do that analysis?
We’ll see. We believe we have some very unique intellectual property around change detection and analysis.
What is unique about Skybox?
We are highly vertically integrated. How many companies like us do you find that build their own satellite, write their own code, design their own cameras, build their own flight computers and radios on the satellite and on the ground?
By hiring Space Systems/Loral to build your next 13 satellites, do you lose some of that control?
We actually gain more control over our business. We’re focusing on those things that are critical. Assembly of satellites is not a core competency for Skybox. We’ve demonstrated cost, performance and reliability. Now we can let somebody else who is an expert replicate that design. That frees us up to focus on those things that are most important. We are an information company. We have no business building 15 or 20 satellites.
Are you planning on a 24-satellite constellation?
The market will tell us how many satellites we will have. We have one that’s flying, one that’s built and 13 on contract. We are moving forward to a constellation of 15.
What if demand exceeds that?
That’s the other reason for Loral. If someone came in and said, “We need 30 satellites,” imagine how long it would take us to build them. Whereas with Loral, it’s a piece of cake. The relationship provides us tremendous capacity to respond to the market.
Who wants satellite video?
We are seeing more interest in video than we ever expected. It shows patterns of life. If you see a car on a road, you can see how fast it’s going. That tells you about the quality of the road and what’s happening around that road. For a ship, we can see not only what’s on it but where it’s going by the wake pattern. There’s a lot of information to pull out of 10 or 15 seconds of video. It also provides societal transparency.
In what way?
We are not going to see individual people but we can see what’s going on in Kiev, Ukraine. People cannot do bad stuff and get away with it anymore. The world is going to know who did what and when. That is a pretty powerful tool for free people.
How many people work here?
About 130 plus 20 consultants. We’re hiring software developers and image scientists.
Your first two spacecraft have no propulsion. Why are you adding that to future satellites?
Our initial plan was to have no propulsion. We realized that with a modest increase to the cost of the satellite, we got a tremendous amount of operational flexibility. With propulsion, we can raise the satellite to get a larger image. We can pull the satellite down to get a smaller image with higher resolution. Because we don’t know exactly where the market is going, we are building in as much flexibility as we can.
What’s your launch plan?
We are on contract to send six on a Minotaur-C rocket in 2015. Orbital Sciences had a product that could give us comfort around schedule and dependability. We have options to launch additional satellites with them and we will see how it goes. I’m sure we will be launching additional satellites as secondary payloads because from a cost perspective it’s a good way to go. When schedule matters a lot, we’re willing to pay more for schedule dependability.
Are you working with the U.S. government?
We want to be commercially focused. If there is a need within the U.S. government for our commercial products, we would love to sell them.