Oftentimes, the best way to get an accurate and objective view of large-scale global problems like deforestation and the accumulation of plastic on ocean surfaces is to look at them from above, from space. To do so, researchers will launch satellites equipped with data-collecting sensors. The method of observation has become so popular and so valued that collectively, commercial, academic, and governmental organizations across the globe spend $45 billion a year to launch their own satellite operations.
The information satellite-mounted sensors can collect is invaluable, but buying, launching, and operating a satellite can cost a company in the region of $100 million–and necessitate hiring a new staff of aerospace engineers to oversee operations. “Why would you want to do that if your purpose as an organization is to monitor deforestation, or looking at how the poles are melting like crazy?” says Antoine de Chassy, former geophysicist and current CEO and co-founder of the new startup Loft Orbital.
De Chassy, along with NASA alum Pierre-Damien Vaujour and Silicon Valley consultant Alex Greenberg, founded Loft Orbital to give research companies, academic institutions, and government branches a much more affordable way to conduct satellite data research. And they did so by adopting the burgeoning Silicon Valley model of product-as-service.
Loft Orbital is, essentially, the UberPool for satellite research, de Chassy says. The startup will handle all of the backend work of launching a satellite operation, from procuring the satellite, to booking a launch slot, to obtaining proper licenses and insurance (de Chassy says that the company will mainly source satellites from SpaceX and OneWeb, both of which are gearing up to launch large-scale satellite operations). Loft will own and operate the satellites, and charge their customers a fee to essentially lease space on the satellite on which they can install their sensors.
While the fees will necessarily vary based on the length of the data-collection mission and the size of the sensor (“if your sensor takes up 80% of the satellite, you’ll be charged 80% of the operational fee,” de Chassy says), customers can expect to pay somewhere in the region of $1 million to $20 million for a space on board a Loft satellite mission–an order of magnitude less than they would have to fork over to launch their own.
For the six months leading up to the November 13 formal launch of Loft Orbital, de Chassy and his team have been traveling around the world, sourcing input and interest from potential customers. While the company is not at liberty to release who their first round of customers will be, de Chassy says they have a mix of academics, research companies, and government agencies on board, and the startup has raised $3.2 million in seed funding to get off the ground.
Eventually, Loft Orbital hopes to fly around 12 to 15 satellites per year, which will enable around 75 companies to launch sensors into space. It will be a bit of a delicate balance, de Chassy says, to “pool” different companies together onto the satellites–Loft Orbital will have to wait until there is adequate demand for a mission that will cover a certain geographic area before launching, for instance.
But he’s confident that Loft Orbital will make a difference in the wealth of data available for companies and researchers to mine. “The planet is really rapidly changing, and it’s more important than ever to have a global and dynamic view of the world,” de Chassy says. “So many NGOs, universities, and institutions are starving for data–they have the means to process it, but no way to collect it.” Loft Orbital, he hopes, will allow its customers to close that data gap.