ST. LOUIS — Satellite operator Umbra and data analytics specialist Ursa Space announced a strategic partnership to pursue more advanced applications of synthetic aperture radar imagery.

SAR satellites can peer through darkness, clouds, bad weather, smoke and other conditions that impair electro optical imaging satellites. 

Umbra, a startup based in Santa Barbara, California, operates a constellation of six SAR satellites. Ursa Space, based in Ithaca, New York, analyzes data collected by a large network of commercial partners.  

Joe Morrison, Umbra’s vice president of commercial experience, told SpaceNews that the companies under the new agreement will collaborate on new ways to exploit SAR data for insights and intelligence. 

Morrison said Umbra was especially impressed by Ursa’s work using SAR data to measure global oil supplies. The Oil Storage Product is a service that provides customers data on global oil inventories.

Ursa uses a proprietary algorithm to turn radar satellite imagery into oil storage measurements.

“It’s a very interesting product,” said Morrison.

Like other satellite operators in the remote sensing industry, Umbra is looking for new avenues and applications for its data. One way to do that is to remove roadblocks to data distribution and ease access to imagery archive, he said, particularly for SAR data that is not as mainstream as optical imagery.

Morrison said Umbra is “growing the amount of data that we’re collecting” and is eyeing opportunities to use that data to track oil production, for maritime domain awareness, and flood analytics.

Ursa on May 19 published a new report on its use of SAR data to track Chinese small boats deployed in the South China Sea as an unconventional maritime militia. The area is notoriously cloudy, making it difficult to obtain frequent optical collections.

Umbra’s customers often ask for specific data solutions or insights but the company doesn’t do analytics, said Morrison. “Ursa is our customer, we sell them data, and oftentimes we find ourselves referring business to them.”

Ursa also helped Umbra to figure out new techniques for tasking sensors, “and that helped us improve the way that we operate our satellites,” he said. “Space is cool. Satellites are cool, but the bigger story is the “real world impacts that this data has.”

Partnership with Maxar 

Morrison said Umbra is also bullish about its recent agreement with Maxar Technologies, announced in February. Maxar will get dedicated capacity on two Umbra satellites. 

At the GEOINT 2023 symposium this week in downtown St. Louis, there is a large Maxar optical image on display at Umbra’s booth, and an Umbra SAR image at Maxar’s booth.

“Our partnership is indicative of the reality that it’s not about whether you need SAR or optical, but that you need a solution,” said Morrison. “And the best solutions are often combining multiple sensors.”

While Maxar is known for its high-resolution optical imagery, “a lot of people don’t realize that they’re one of the most capable SAR analytics companies in the world,” he said. 

The companies plan to start offering joint products later this year. 

“One of the things I’m most excited about is combining SAR with precision 3D data,” said Morrison. Maxar uses 3D and elevation models to create immersive maps. 

“With SAR images you get radar shadows and distortions,” he said. “When you project that on a high resolution terrain elevation model, it looks like a video game.” For applications like damage assessment or emergency response, said Morrison, the imagery is much more compelling and easier to understand. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...