Is commercial remote sensing ready to make the leap?

It’s hard to ignore the frightening forecasts. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions without adequate water supplies. By 2050, farmers will need to boost production by 70 percent to feed a global population that will exceed nine billion.

Stewart Bain is convinced commercial satellites with hyperspectral sensors will help solve these and many other problems governments and industries face.

“The secrets of the Earth are coded into the chemical structure,” said Bain, chief executive of NorthStar, an organization that plans to obtain data from a constellation of 40 satellites equipped with hyperspectral sensors. “We need to break the code.”

It won’t be easy. Although NASA began obtaining data from its first space-based hyperspectral sensor on the experimental Earth Observation-1 satellite 15 years ago, hyperspectral sensors are far more difficult to build and operate than widely used multispectral sensors because they measure light in far more bandwidths. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite captures Earth observation data in 11 bandwidths, while the Hyperion imaging spectrometer on Earth Observation-1 measures light in 220 different spectral bands.

Due to their demanding job, the optical elements of hyperspectral sensors are larger than those of multispectral sensors. In addition, hyperspectral sensors gather far more raw data that has to be sent to Earth stations, processed, analyzed and presented to customers in an easy-to-use format.

“The average person can look at an electro-optical satellite image and understand it,” said Joseph Fargnoli, chief executive of RITRE Corp., an engineering and financial services firm in Rochester, New York, one of the co-founders of HySpecIQ, a commercial hyperspectral imagery startup. “The average person cannot take a hyperspectral data cube and understand it.”

Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement that commercial hyperspectral satellites are a valuable data source that eventually will be tapped. It will simply take a few more years, said Tomas Svitek, president of Stellar Exploration Inc. of Mountain View, California.

Companies eager to launch the first hyperspectral sensors on commercial satellites, including NorthStar and Planetary Resources, are forming alliances and developing technology now with the backing of investors. Another firm, HySpecIQ, plans to resume its efforts to raise money for a hyperspectral constellation.

“There is definitely a great need for hyperspectral imagery and data among farmers and other customers if companies can bring the cost down,” said Valery Komissarova, business development director for Grishin Robotics, a venture capital firm and Planetary Resources investor based in Menlo Park, California. “Ultimately farmers don’t necessarily even want to look at an image, they just want to know what it means for their plants and what action they should take.”

Laying the Groundwork

Montreal-based NorthStar is seeking to establish a global enterprise to analyze and distribute data obtained by satellites in low Earth orbit with optical sensors to observe spacecraft, debris and asteroids as well as hyperspectral and infrared sensors pointed at Earth. “Like Apple’s iPhone, NorthStar is a platform for application developers,” Bain said. “We have to deliver information services rather than data.”

NorthStar is developing products and services to meet the needs of customers working in agriculture, forestry, mining, water resource management, environmental monitoring and space situational awareness. The company is working with Canada’s National Research Council on validation and characterization of hyperspectral data and looking for public and private sector partners in America, Europe and Japan. “We want to conclude partnership discussions by the end of 2016,” Bain said.

Then, NorthStar will turn its attention to developing hardware and software for 750-kilogram satellites with optical radio frequency crosslinks to transmit data throughout the constellation and enable whichever satellite is near a ground station to download it. Fiber optic cables will move data from ground stations, which will use software and predictive analytics to make sense of the data collected, Bain said.

NorthStar hopes to begin providing data drawn from its space-based constellation to customers in 2020, Bain said.

Planetary Resources, the Redmond, Washington-based asteroid mining company, also intends to send hyperspectral sensors into orbit but company officials are not yet saying when that is likely to happen. Planetary Resources’ goal is to use hyperspectral and infrared sensors to determine the composition of asteroids, their value and the cost to extract materials, said Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources president and chief executive.

Before sending satellites to asteroids, Planetary Resources intends to test infrared sensors first and later hyperpsectral sensors in low Earth orbit. The firm plans to profit from the products and services it can sell based on the data gathered by the sensors flying in its Ceres Earth observing constellation.

Planetary Resources is working with NASA under a Small Business Innovative Research contract to develop a lightweight hyperspectral imager, called Compact Hyperspectral Aberration-correction Platform, for satellites weighing between 10 and 100 kilograms. “NASA’s interest is in looking for toxic algal blooms,” Lewicki said.

Planetary Resources also is working with the German chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer AG to explore the use of infrared and hyperspectral sensors to identify crop stress. “They are very interested in using [the infrared sensors] for measuring soil moisture and looking for indications of crop stress,” Lewicki said. “We can look at a million acres and identify the small percentage of acres that need special attention.”

When Planetary Resources adds hyperspectral sensors to its Ceres constellation, farmers will be able not only to detect areas of concern, but also determine the problem.

“Hyperspectral will allow us to make more precise measurements so we can say whether crops have nutrient deficiency or certain infestations,” Lewicki said. He declined to say when Planetary Resources will launch hyperspectral sensors. “It is part of our roadmap but not our next milestone,” he said.

Another startup focused on this market, HySpecIQ of Washington, made a splash in 2014 when it announced plans to mount hyperspectral sensors on two Boeing 502 Phoenix small satellites. In early 2015, HySpecIQ obtained a license from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to operate its HySpec-1 and HySpec-2 satellites with electro-optical hyperspectral and panchromatic imaging sensors in a sun synchronous low Earth orbit.

HySpecIQ was seeking to raise “multiple hundreds of millions of dollars” to launch two of the 600-kilogram satellites with a seven- to 10-year life time. “Everything looked good initially,” Fargnoli said.

When the venture was conceived, a ton of iron ore and a barrel of oil both cost around $140. The subsequent drop in iron ore and oil prices prompted HySpecIQ to ask Boeing in 2015 to slow down work on the new satellites, a plan that Boeing declined. “It was back luck, bad timing,” Fargnoli said.

HySpecIQ is now on hiatus, although the firm has many elements in place that its founders can return to when the time is right, Fargnoli said.

“If the markets are not ready now to finance HySpecIQ, we go back to perfecting the payload and proving the applications with end customers to validate them and gain greater adoption,” Fargnoli said. “The money is out there, but you need to show investors that people will eat the Big Macs before you build the restaurant.”