Urban Sky image
A sample image taken from an Urban Sky "Microballoon" over Colorado, with a resolution of about 10 centimeters. Credit: Urban Sky

WASHINGTON — A Colorado startup has raised a seed round of funding to further develop a system that can provide imagery from high-altitude balloons at much higher resolution than satellites.

Denver-based Urban Sky announced Aug. 19 that it raised $4.1 million in a seed round led by Catapult Ventures and Union Labs, with participation from TenOneTen Ventures, NewStack Ventures and Techstars.

The company, founded by two veterans of another stratospheric ballooning company, World View, is taking a different approach to high-altitude imagery. The company has developed a far smaller balloon system called “Microballoons” that fly to altitudes of about 20 kilometers, carrying a small imaging payload.

“We’re trying to create the cubesat of the stratosphere,” Andrew Antonio, chief executive of Urban Sky, said in an interview. “It’s a very small system that’s nimble and rapidly deployable.”

The balloons operate under the same Federal Aviation Administration regulations as weather balloons, which limit the mass of the payloads they can carry to approximately 2.7 kilograms. “This has been one of the most exciting and challenging parts of the company,” he said of developing a camera system that can fit into that limited payload. “This wasn’t really possible until two or three years ago.”

Staying within that mass constraint allows them to use a mobile deployment system, which requires just two people to deploy the balloon. It also permits deployments on short notice. Both the payload and the balloon itself are recovered at the end of each flight for reuse.

Tests of the system show it can produce color images at a resolution of 10 centimeters. The company has also tested a longwave infrared detector with a resolution of 3.5 meters for detecting and mapping wildfires.

The color imagery is far sharper than the best imagery for commercial satellites. “What’s clear to us from talking to customers is that resolution matters,” Antonio said. “Certain applications, especially when you’re trying to look at property characteristics, just are not doable with any of the existing or planned constellations that we see coming.”

Among those applications is insurance, where aerial imagery is used assessing damage claims after natural disasters. Urban Sky is working with Arturo, an insurance analytics company, on how its images can be used in insurance.

“We’re incredibly excited about innovation in the stratospheric balloon imaging space and see it as a potential game changer for numerous use cases,” John-Isaac Clark, chief executive of Arturo, said in a statement.

Urban Sky plans to use the seed funding to continue development and testing of its Microballoon system as well as setting up a data analysis pipeline for the imagery it produces. Over the next two years the company will scale up to a weekly flight rate in the Rocky Mountain region, then look to raise a new funding round to expand across the country.

“With this new round of funding, Urban Sky will have the opportunity to bring low cost, high refresh rate imaging into a rapidly growing number of industries, and ultimately unlock a new set of applications and insights,” said Rouz Jazayeri and Darren Liccardo, co-founders of Catapult Ventures, in a statement.

Antonio emphasized that he sees Urban Sky’s imagery complementing satellite and other sources of imagery, not replacing them, because of the growing demands for imagery. “We’re not going to get global coverage every single day, but our advantages are that we will get more frequent coverage at a higher resolution over the areas that specific customers really care about and want to see.”

“The market in remote sensing or observation is heading towards wanting more data, wanting better data at a lower cost,” he added. “We want higher resolution remote sensing data and we want it more frequently so we can do better change detection, and then we want as cheap as we can get it.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...