Umbra emerges from stealth mode with plans to offer 25-centimeter radar at optical imagery prices
SAN FRANCISCO — After years of secrecy, Umbra Lab is revealing details of its plan to launch a constellation of 50-kilogram synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites to capture imagery with a resolution of 25 centimeters.
“We are beginning to open up at this point because [competitors] have made their various trades, selected their technical path and business plan,” said David Langan, Umbra CEO and co-founder. “It’s fine for us to open up a little bit and show our path to a high performance microsatellite.”
After completing testing and qualification of hardware including ten square meter deployable parabolic antennas, Umbra has set its sights on sending its first satellite into orbit in 2020.
“We don’t quote launch dates because there are many factors,” said Langan, a systems engineer, who worked for nearly a decade on space antennas and space-based radars at companies that were acquired by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. “I will say, the first satellites will be complete next year and there are plenty of launch opportunities in 2020.”
Since it was founded in 2015 by longtime friends Langan and Gabe Dominocielo, an entrepreneur, Umbra has shied away from publicity. Some information has trickled out. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded Umbra a license in 2018 for a constellation to offer 25-centimeter resolution from satellites in 515-kilometer circular sun synchronous orbit. More details emerged a few months later when Starbridge Venture Capital, Hemisphere Ventures and other investors revealed financial support for the SAR startup.
Now, Umbra is sharing technical information. On Oct. 1, Umbra updated its website, sharing information for the first time on the mass, power and efficiency of its antennas.
“The key metric that indicates performance of a SAR satellite and resulting image quality is power aperture, which is the combination of the effective power and effective aperture area,” Dominocielo said in an Oct. 10 blog post. “Umbra’s SAR payload incorporates an incredibly powerful antenna and an efficient feed to reliably and efficiently produce large quantities of single-look, sub-meter SAR imagery.”
Still, Umbra isn’t ready to tell all. How many satellites does the firm plan to launch? “We are going to build a constellation to fit customer needs,” Dominocielo said.
Executives also declined to say how much money the company has raised. There are indications, though, that it’s a healthy sum because Umbra has multiple satellites under construction and the firm has more than tripled its staff in the last two years. The Santa Barbara, California, firm employs 20 people and is seeking to hire additional engineers.
When Starbridge announced its investment in Umbra in a May 2018 blog post, Umbra was planning to operate 12 satellites capable of revisiting sites hourly to offer customers one-meter resolution imagery.
Unlike many of its competitors building constellations of commercial SAR satellites, Umbra does not plan to offer image analysis. Instead, the company plans to simply give customers the ability to task satellites and gather data on specific sites.
“Our service is designed to empower customers to make better decisions in business-to-business and business-to-government industries,” according to Dominocielo’s blog. “We seek to expand our customers’ business by partnering with and supporting their existing analytics approach/relationships. Umbra does this by offering direct sales of high-quality, low-cost data as a commercial service, rather than in providing image analytics as a business function.”
Umbra has not published a price list for imagery, but the company says its radar imagery prices will be comparable to optical imagery prices.
“Expect our pricing to be competitive with panchromatic and multispectral optical imagery of equivalent resolution,” according to Umbra’s website. “SAR will be the preferred means of obtaining data for your analytics solution.”
Umbra plans to offer customers a variety of image modes. The company’s default mode, which it calls Staring Spotlight, can provide imagery with a resolution of 25-centimeters over a 16-square-kilometer area. Umbra also plans to offer customers mosaics, created with multiple images of various sizes and shapes.
“Think of a quilt,” Dominocielo said by email. “You stitch smaller images together and make a larger one, our customers want images of small targets in high resolution, not huge swaths of open ocean in low resolution.”