Orbital imagery is in demand, and if you think having daily images of everywhere on Earth is going to be enough in a few years, you need a lesson in ambition. Alba Orbital is here to provide it with its intention to provide Earth observation at intervals of 15 minutes rather than hours or days — and it just raised $3.4 million to get its next set of satellites into orbit.
Alba attracted our attention at Y Combinator’s latest demo day; I was impressed with the startup’s accomplishment of already having six satellites in orbit, which is more than most companies with space ambition ever get. But it’s only the start for the company, which will need hundreds more to begin to offer its planned high-frequency imagery.
The Scottish company has spent the last few years in prep and R&D, pursuing the goal, which some must have thought laughable, of creating a solar-powered Earth observation satellite that weighs in at less than one kilogram. The joke’s on the skeptics, however — Alba has launched a proof of concept and is ready to send the real thing up as well.
Little more than a flying camera with a minimum of storage, communication, power and movement, the sub-kilogram Unicorn-2 is about the size of a soda can, with paperback-size solar panel wings, and costs in the neighborhood of $10,000. It should be able to capture up to 10-meter resolution, good enough to see things like buildings, ships, crops, even planes.
“People thought we were idiots. Now they’re taking it seriously,” said Tom Walkinshaw, founder and CEO of Alba. “They can see it for what it is: a unique platform for capturing data sets.”
Indeed, although the idea of daily orbital imagery like Planet’s once seemed excessive, in some situations it’s quite clearly not enough.
“The California case is probably wildfires,” said Walkinshaw (and it always helps to have a California case). “Having an image once a day of a wildfire is a bit like having a chocolate teapot… not very useful. And natural disasters like hurricanes, flooding is a big one, transportation as well.”
Walkinshaw noted that they company was bootstrapped and profitable before taking on the task of launching dozens more satellites, something the seed round will enable.
“It gets these birds in the air, gets them finished and shipped out,” he said. “Then we just need to crank up the production rate.”
When I talked to Walkinshaw via video call, 10 or so completed satellites in their launch shells were sitting on a rack behind him in the clean room, and more are in the process of assembly. Aiding in the scaling effort is new investor James Park, founder and CEO of Fitbit — definitely someone who knows a little bit about bringing hardware to market.
Interestingly, the next batch to go to orbit (perhaps as soon as in a month or two, depending on the machinations of the launch provider) will be focusing on nighttime imagery, an area Walkinshaw suggested was undervalued. But as orbital thermal imaging startup Satellite Vu has shown, there’s immense appetite for things like energy and activity monitoring, and nighttime observation is a big part of that.
The seed round will get the next few rounds of satellites into space, and after that Alba will be working on scaling manufacturing to produce hundreds more. Once those start going up it can demonstrate the high-cadence imaging it is aiming to produce — for now it’s impossible to do so, though Alba already has customers lined up to buy the imagery it does get.
The round was led by Metaplanet Holdings, with participation by Y Combinator, Liquid2, Soma, Uncommon Denominator, Zillionize and numerous angels.
As for competition, Walkinshaw welcomes it, but feels secure that he and his company have more time and work invested in this class of satellite than anyone in the world — a major obstacle for anyone who wants to do battle. It’s more likely companies will, as Alba has done, pursue a distinct product complementary to those already or in the process of being offered.
“Space is a good place to be right now,” he concluded.