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“What would you do with information about every square meter on earth, updated every single hour?”
Finnish radar satellite imaging company, ICEYE, asks interested parties this impressive question.
“To make Earth observation imagery as available, reliable and timely as needed to identify and monitor changes, the satellite industry had to change,” says an ICEYE spokesperson. “The satellite images mostly came from huge, government-operated or -sponsored, exquisite systems with a limited number of satellites.”
This in mind, ICEYE’s team has since launched 14 microsatellite spacecraft, from launch systems from India to New Zealand, varying in purpose, and each with low cost and minimal mass. They innovate in earth intelligence, a field that is estimated to be worth billions. The team has already raised $150M in venture funding to date.
ICEYE’s most recent addition, a Daily Coherent Ground Track Repeat (GTR) capability, attests to their fleet—and company’s—impressive degree of innovation.
Based in Espoo and founded in 2014 as a spin-off of Aalto University‘s nanosatellite group, Aalto-1, creative synthetic-aperture (SAR) radar sensors. Given SAR was already a useful method for obtaining images of Earth’s surface regardless of weather, the team’s initial bend was humanitarian.
“They recognized the need for timely, always accessible, fine-resolution imagery accessible to everyone for humanitarian applications such as earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, glacier flows and numerous environmental indicators, amongst others,” says ICEYE’s spokesperson. “In 2015, ICEYE Oy was founded and the world’s first micro SAR satellite was successfully launched on January 12, 2018.” It was the first Finnish commercial satellite launched into space.
Unlike pre-existing SAR satellites, which were several tons each, ICEYE-X1 weighed in at only 75 kg and cost a fraction of those conventional satellites. Ten-plus satellites later and toting a consumer base dominated by data-seeking governments, ICEYE sets itself apart from competitors with this design—and cheapness.
“The satellites are agile, highly maneuverable small platforms that can be turned quickly. Thanks to the rigid structure, which allows a quick settling after turning, and a very wide electronic beam steering, the satellites can cover significantly more and also closely spaced areas in one pass than conventional satellites,” says the spokesperson. “This enables an unprecedented rapid revisit of areas up to several times per day.”
Each satellite can collect images via three different modes: Scan, with a coverage of 100 km x 100 km (15m resolution), Strip (3m resolution) or Spot mode (0.25m resolution). Most of the spacecraft manufacturing happens in-house, in Finland or the US.
Their recently announced Daily Coherent Ground Track Repeat capability, colloquially known as GTR, can detect ground changes on Earth from space with unforeseen precision—every 24 hours.
“Vessel movement, construction activities, infrastructure integrity, glacier movements, volcano eruptions—in all weather and darkness,” says the spokesperson. “It also allows the measurement of ground disturbance with a very high level of detail (in the millimeter range), such as car tracks on the gravel roads, and detailed terrain elevation changes.”
The technology is a win for curious customers, notably governments. “Receiving Daily Coherent GTR images of an area of interest makes it possible to create time-series, monitor changes, and extract detailed information about the situation on the ground over any period of time,” the spokesperson says. “Daily Coherent GTR is only possible due to ICEYE’s unprecedentedly large satellite constellation and exceptionally precise orbit maintenance. This allows ICEYE to operate a number of satellites in the specific daily revisit orbit.”
Their satellites circle Earth exactly 15 times a day, so each can gather imaging with the exact same geometry as the day prior.
ICEYE has garnered a name and a following, earning $50M in contracts with the U.S. government last year and even onboarding a former Tesla exec to their team. This comes with a greater market, particularly for their commercial-use satellites. And though they deal in space’s contentious pathways, there is beauty, according to ICEYE, with an increasing demand.
“The amount of satellites launched is dependent on the capacity needs of our customers,” the spokesperson says. “The trend is towards significantly more need as time progresses. The beauty of new space is that we can adjust the amount of satellites launched, and timing with agility.”
Their plan is to have 20-plus satellites in orbit by early 2022.
They also plan on innovating the geospatial data game, providing faster access to it than previously possible.
Indeed, their most recent launch in July with SpaceX boasted a spacecraft on “a next-generation demonstration mission designed to double the effective resolution of ICEYE’s proprietary imaging instrument and provide direct data downlink,” according to the spokesperson.
Evolution is in store for the Finnish company. Hopes and plans aside, however, ICEYE will always be keen on one thing: keeping “a key focus on serving direct customer needs,” they say.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Olivia Baker is a tech editor and journalist at Identity Review, where she writes on tech policy and national digital identity technologies.
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