Monday, June 09, 2014

Dinosaurs in Space!

PCs and smartphones have pushed mainframes to the brink of extinction on Earth, and yet mainframes still thrive in space.

Most every satellite in orbit is a floating dinosaur - a bloated, one-off, expensive, often militarized, monolithic relic of the mainframe era. The opportunity for entrepreneurs today is to launch modern computer networks into space, disrupting our aging infrastructure with an Internet of microsats. 

So why has it taken so long for modern computing to reach space? Gravity. It’s hard to launch things. Governments have the money and patience to do it, as do large cable and telecom corporations. These players are slow to innovate, and large satellites have met their basic needs around science, defense, and communications, albeit at very high costs.

That’s changing:  several IT trends have come together to herald the extinction of these orbiting pterodactyls:
  • Moore’s law has reached the point where a single rocket launch can be amortized across dozens of tiny satellites, and the replacement cost is so low that we needn’t burden our missions with triple redundancies and a decade of testing
  • Global computing clouds make it easy to deploy ground stations; and
  • Advances in Big Data enable us to process the torrential flows of information we get from distributed networks

These trends have reduced the cost of a single aerospace mission from a billion dollars down to a hundred million just as the early-stage VC community amassed enough capital to undertake projects of this scope. And now that a handful of venture-backed startups like SpaceX and Skybox are demonstrating success, the number of aerospace business plans circulating through Sand Hill Road has climbed faster than a Falcon 9.

With each successful startup, progress accelerates and synergies emerge. As SpaceX makes launches cheaper, it opens the frontier to more entrepreneurs. Pioneers like Skybox and Planet Labs have to build end-to-end solutions for their markets, including everything from satellite buses to big data search algorithms; but there will soon evolve an ecosystem of vendors who specialize in launch mechanisms, cubesats, sensors, inter-sat communications, analytics, and software applications.

So who are the customers for a space-based Internet? At first, aerospace startups will disrupt two large markets:

·       Scientific exploration of space.  In the past, costly scientific missions such as Apollo ($355 million in 1966), ISS ($3 billion/year), Hubble ($10 billion), and Cassini ($3.3 billion) were designed and built by government agencies. Expect startups to disrupt this market with innovations in rocketry, robotics, optics, cloud computing, space suits, renewable energy, and more.

·       Communications. Government defense agencies spend considerable sums on communications to serve their space-based weapon systems and intelligence bureaus. Media and cable companies also commission satellites to serve their consumers. Microsat networks of radios will supply these customers more cheaply and reliably.

While spatial avionics improve with Moore’s Law, certainly some payloads, like telescopes and robots, cannot be miniaturized beyond the constraints of physics. But even these missions will benefit from the cheap, rapid testing available on a nanosatellite.  Just as programmers today can build entire software companies using a free A.W.S. account and the open source LAMP stack, space-faring entrepreneurs can now explore myriads of new business models by launching $1,000 cubesats out of ISS.

In addition to disrupting existing markets, microsat networks in space will enable a new and important capability:  Planetary Awareness. When we surround our planet with sensors across the frequency spectrum, we will have access to data that opens up new markets. Today, we have sensors across our landmasses, but adding sensors in space, the ocean, and the atmosphere will illuminate both natural phenomena and human logistics. 

Planetary Awareness will enable many capabilities of high social value:

o   Aviation and maritime safety: The need for tracking and communicating with aircraft and ships is in the public eye today following the loss of flight MH370.

o   Nature surveillance: Predict and monitor weather, global warming, natural disasters, and the risk of meteor damage (as pioneered by the B612 Foundation).

o   Global journalism: Expose protests, genocides, and other state-censored events.

Planetary Awareness will also open new markets of high economic value, which are much more likely to drive the success of aerospace startups:

o   Finding natural resources: Minerals and fuel sources abound upon the ocean floor (as discovered by Liquid Robotics’ fleet of WaveGliders) and near-Earth asteroids (as Planetary Resources promises to find using cheap microsats).

o   Financial services: Tracking human activity and commerce (e.g. the proverbial counting of cars in parking lots) yields valuable data to merchants, logistics providers and investors.

o   Military and geopolitical intelligence: Governments already purchase imagery for this use, but visibility will greatly expand from more frequent flyovers, video, radio surveillance, and automated analytics.

Geospatial imaging attracts many startups because it is already a robust and underserved market, but the opportunity to enable planetary awareness is much broader.  Dan Berkenstock didn’t start Skybox Imaging just to sell images and video: he had a more profound vision for the impact that startups can have on the aerospace industry.  His mission attracted co-founders from Stanford and NASA, his CEO Tom Ingersoll from Universal Space, aerospace legends like Joe Rothenberg who led the Hubble repair as well as other star engineers and investors. And now Skybox is proving that they, along with SpaceX and other nimble startups, will displace dinosaurs in space with data services driven by constellations of smart microsats. 

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