OroraTech’s space-based early wildfire warnings spark $7M investment

With wildfires becoming an ever more devastating annual phenomenon, it is in the whole planet’s interest to spot them and respond as early as possible — and the best vantage point for that is space. OroraTech is a German startup building a constellation of small satellites to power a global wildfire warning system, and will be using a freshly raised €5.8M (~$7M) A round to kick things off.

Wildfires destroy tens of millions of acres of forest every year, causing immense harm to people and the planet in countless ways. Once they’ve grown to a certain size, they’re near impossible to stop, so the earlier they can be located and worked against, the better.

But these fires can start just about anywhere in a dried out forest hundreds of miles wide, and literally every minute and hour counts — watch towers, helicopter flights, and other frequently used methods may not be fast or exact enough to effectively counteract this increasingly serious threat. Not to mention they’re expensive and often dangerous jobs for those who perform them.

OroraTech’s plan is to use a constellation of about 100 satellites equipped with custom infrared cameras to watch the entire globe (or at least the parts most likely to burst into flame) at once, reporting any fire bigger than ten meters across within half an hour.

Screenshot of OroraTech wildfire monitoring software showing heat detection in a forest.

Image Credits: OroraTech

To start out with, the Bavarian company has used data from over a dozen satellites already in space, in order to prove out the service on the ground. But with this funding round they are set to put their own bird in the air, a shoebox-sized satellite with a custom infrared sensor that will be launched by Spire later this year. Onboard machine learning processing of this imagery simplifies the downstream process.

14 more satellites are planned for launch by 2023, presumably once they’ve kicked the proverbial tires on the first one and come up with the inevitable improvements.

“In order to cover even more regions in the future and to be able to give warning earlier, we aim to launch our own specialized satellite constellation into orbit,” said CEO and co-founder Thomas Grübler in a press release. “We are therefore delighted to have renowned investors on board to support us with capital and technological know-how in implementing our plans.”

Mockup of an OroraTech Earth imaging satellite in space.

Those renowned investors consist of Findus Venture and Ananda Impact Ventures, which led the round, followed by APEX Ventures, BayernKapital, Clemens Kaiser, SpaceTec Capital and Ingo Baumann. The company was spun out of research done by the founders at TUM, which maintains an interest.

“It is absolutely remarkable what they have built up and achieved so far despite limited financial resources and we feel very proud that we are allowed to be part of this inspiring and ambitious NewSpace project,” APEX’s Wolfgang Neubert said, and indeed it’s impressive to have a leading space-based data service with little cash (it raised an undisclosed seed about a year ago) and no satellites.

It’s not the only company doing infrared imagery of the Earth’s surface; SatelliteVu recently raised money to launch its own, much smaller constellation, though it’s focused on monitoring cities and other high-interest areas, not the vast expanse of forests. And ConstellR is aimed (literally) at the farming world, monitoring fields for precision crop management.

With money in its pocket Orora can expand and start providing its improved detection services, though sadly, it likely won’t be upgrading before wildfire season hits the northern hemisphere this year.

Satellite Vu’s $5M seed round will fuel the launch of its thermal imaging satellites

Earth imaging is an increasingly crowded space, but Satellite Vu is taking a different approach by focusing on infrared and heat emissions, which are crucial for industry and climate change monitoring. Fresh from TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield, the company has raised a £3.6M ($5M) seed round and is on its way to launching its first satellite in 2022.

The nuts and bolts of Satellite Vu’s tech and master plan are described in our original profile of the company, but the gist is this: while companies like Planet have made near-real-time views of the Earth’s surface into a thriving business, other niches are relatively unexplored — like thermal imaging.

The heat coming off a building, geological feature, or even a crowd of people is an enormously interesting data point. It can tell you whether an office building or warehouse is in use or empty, and whether it’s heated or cooled, and how efficient that process is. It can find warmer or cooler areas that suggest underground water, power lines, or other heat-affecting objects. It could even make a fair guess at how many people attended a concert, or perhaps an inauguration. And of course it works at night.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

You could verify, for instance, which parts of a power plant are active, when.

Pollution and other emissions are also easily spotted and tracked, making infrared observation of the planet an important part of any plan to monitor industry in the context of climate change. That’s what attracted Satellite Vu’s first big piece of cash, a grant from the U.K. government for £1.4M, part of a £500M infrastructure fund.

CEO and founder Anthony Baker said that they began construction of their first satellite with that money, “so we knew we got our sums right,” he said, then began the process of closing additional capital.

Seraphim Capital, a space-focused VC firm whose most relevant venture is probably synthetic aperture satellite startup Iceye, matched the grant funds, and with subsequent grant the total money raised is in excess of the $5M target (the extra is set aside in a convertible note).

“What attracted us to Satellite Vu is several things. We published some research about this last year: there are more than 180 companies with plans to launch smallsat constellations,” said Seraphim managing partner James Bruegger. But very few, they noted, were looking at the infrared or thermal space. “That intrigued us, because we always thought infrared had a lot of potential. And we already knew Anthony and Satellite Vu from having put them through our space accelerator in 2019.”

They’re going to need every penny. Though the satellites themselves are looking to be remarkably cheap, as satellites go — $14-15M all told — and only seven will be needed to provide global coverage, that still adds up to over $100M over the next couple years.

Simulated image of a Satellite Vu imaging satellite.

Image Credits: Satellite Vu

Seraphim isn’t daunted, however: “As a specialist space investor, we understand the value of patience,” said Bruegger. Satellite Vu, he added, is a “poster child” for their approach, which is to shuttle early stage companies through their accelerator and then support them to an exit.

It helps that Baker has lined up about as much potential income from interested customers as they’ll need to finance the whole thing, soup to nuts. “Commercial traction has improved since we last spoke,” said Baker, which was just before he presented at TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 Startup Battlefield:

The company now has 26 letters of intent and other leads that amount to, in his estimation, about a hundred million dollars worth of business — if he can provide the services they’re asking for, of course. To that end the company has been flying its future orbital cameras on ordinary planes and modifying the output to resemble what they expect from the satellite network.

Companies interested in the latter can buy into the former for now, and the transition to the “real” product should be relatively painless. It also helps create a pipeline on Satellite Vu’s side, so there’s no need for a test satellite and service.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

Another example of the simulated satellite imagery – same camera as will be in orbit, but degraded to resemble shots from that far up.

“We call it pseudo-satellite data — it’s almost a minimum viable product.We work with the companies about the formats and stuff they need,” Baker said. “The next stage is, we’re planning on taking a whole city, like Glasgow, and mapping the whole city in thermal. We think there will be many parties interested in that.”

With investment, tentative income, and potential customers lining up, Satellite Vu seems poised to make a splash, though its operations and launches are small compared with those of Planet, Starlink, and very soon Amazon’s Kuiper. After the first launch, tentatively scheduled for 2022, Baker said the company would only need two more to put the remaining six satellites in orbit, three at a time on a rideshare launch vehicle.

Before that, though, we can expect further fundraising, perhaps as soon as a few months from now — after all, however thrifty the company is, tens of millions in cash will still be needed to get off the ground.

Near Space Labs expands high-altitude Earth imagery to Texas and ramps remote deployment

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has had a number of unexpected impacts on global economic activity – most of them negative. But the pandemic has also highlighted the need for alternative solutions to challenges where traditional solutions now prove either too costly, or too difficult to do while maintaining good health and safety practices. Near Space Labs, a startup focused on providing timely, location-specific, high resolution Earth imaging from balloons in the stratosphere, is one company that has found its model remarkably well-suited to the conditions that have arisen due to the coronavirus crisis.

Near Space Labs is in the process of expanding its offering to Texas, with some imagery already collected, and the team in active conversations with a number of potential customers about subscribing to its imaging services ahead of launching the first full batch of collected imagery by early next month. Adding a new geography in the middle of a pandemic required Near Space Labs to move up the development of a way for it to easily ship and deploy its balloon-lofted imaging equipment using remote instruction with local technical talent, which now means it’s ready to effectively spin up an imaging operation very quickly, on-demand basically anywhere in the world, with simple, minimal training to onboard and equip local operators on-demand.

“With travel restrictions, we had to figure out how to deploy hardware in a fully remote way,” explained Near Space Labs’ CEO Rema Matevosyan. “That had been a challenge that we wanted to tackle at some point, for our scalability – but instead we had to tackle that ASAP. Today, I’m really proud to say that the Swift, our robotic vehicles are able to be shipped anywhere on the globe in a small suitcase. And with a few videos, and a manual, it’s super easy to train new people to launch.”

Swift is basically a sophisticated camera attached to a balloon that flies between 60,000 and 85,000 feet, with short duration flights that can nonetheless capture up to 270 square miles of imagery at 30cm per inch resolution in a single pass. Swift is also designed to be able to go up frequently, making trips up to as frequently as twice per day, and it’s designed to provide quick turnaround times for processed images, compared to long potential waits for imaging from geosynchronous or even LEO satellites based on orbital schedules, ground station transmission times and other factors.

Image Credits: Near Space Labs

And because Near Space Labs can basically ship its imaging equipment in a suitcase and have just about anyone train quickly to use it effectively, vs. having to build a satellite that requires delivery via rocket and operation by highly trained engineers, it can offer considerable savings vs. the space-based competition – at a time when cost sensitivity for public institutions and the organizations looking for this kind of data aren’t eager to open their wallets.

“In these uncertain economic times, margins and fiscal responsibility become very important for people,” Matevosyan explained. “We have the perfect solution for that – our approach is very flexible, very low-cost. Even states are ‘bankrupt,’ – so everybody’s looking for ways to improve their margins, and to improving their spend.”

Matevosyan told me that Near Space Labs has seen an uptick in interest in its product from two directions as a result of the ongoing global economic shifts – first, there are customers who have traditionally sourced this imaging from satellite providers and who are looking for cost savings and a product that more closely fits their geographic and timing needs. Second, there are organizations looking to start using this kind of imagery for the first time, as an alternative to in-person inspection or sensing, because of the ways in which COVID-19 has put restrictions on workforces.

“COVID also put a spotlight in general on the remote sensing industry, because people are unable to, for instance, go down to the assets or the sites that they usually would check manually,” she said. “So that started looking into remote sensing solutions, and we saw an uptick in applications and signups to our imagery. One example industry where that’s happening is conservation. Conservation wasn’t a vertical that was super active in our pipeline. But suddenly with COVID, it became pretty active.”

Matevosyan says that it took Near Space just “days” to ramp a new technical team to be able to launch its Swifts in Texas, and that’s representative of the speed at which it can now scale to establish imaging basically anywhere in the world. Flexibility and scalability were always key assets of the business, she says, but the COVID crisis pushed that essential value to the forefront, and could help propel the company’s growth a lot quicker than expected.