More than Meets the Eye

Non-visual data could be the next big thing in small satellites


HawkEye 360, a startup backed by a Boston venture capital firm and a former U.S. government intelligence official, is raising money to build clusters of small satellites to pinpoint radio frequency sources.

John Serafini, Allied Minds

John Serafini, Allied Minds

Although the field is getting crowded with firms promising to use satellite constellations to track ships at sea or aircraft in flight, HawkEye 360 plans to use radio frequency data in a different way. The firm intends to monitor various types of radio frequency sources and sell that information to cellular and satellite networks among other customers.

“We can provide heat maps that identify radio frequency interference to maximize the value of the spectrum,” said John Serafini, HawkEye 360 chief executive and senior vice president for Allied Minds, a Boston-based venture capital firm that focuses on building companies around technology developed in university and federal research laboratories.

In this case, the core technology that prompted Allied Minds to establish HawkEye 360 was a portfolio of intellectual property developed at Virginia Tech for detection and precise geolocation of radio frequency sources. By flying clusters of three satellites weighing about 15 kilograms each in formation, HawkEye 360 will calculate the precise location of signals, said Chris DeMay, HawkEye 360 founder and chief operating officer.

“We can provide heat maps that identify radio frequency interference to maximize the value of the spectrum.”

— John Serafini, HawkEye 360 chief executive 
and senior vice president 
for Allied Minds

“We want to minimize error so we have a clear and actionable understanding of the location of the signals we are detection,” said DeMay, former director of the National Reconnaissance Office’s non-traditional signals intelligence program office where he oversaw more than 25 space technology development projects. “We anticipate having geolocation accuracy much better than anyone has seen before.”

Like many startups planning to gather data with space-based sensors, HawkEye 360 plans to sell subscriptions to its data analytic products instead of marketing raw data. “We have customers who are interested in the financial sector, transportation supply chain, federal, state and local governments,” Serafini said.

HawkEye 360 is part of a wider movement of companies focusing on using satellite sensors to collect non-visual data, including synthetic aperture radar, radio frequency and infrared observations, which the firms plan to turn into value-added products, said Carolyn Belle, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, an international market research and consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For example, Orbcomm Inc. of Rochelle Park, New Jersey, Canada’s exactEarth and Spire Global with offices in San Francisco, Glasgow and Singapore are using satellites to identify and locate maritime vessels using their Automatic Identification System transponders. Similarly, Aireon of McLean, Virginia, plans to track the location of aircraft with satellite sensors designed to pick up their Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) signals.

Chris DeMay, HawkEye 360

Chris DeMay, HawkEye 360

“We anticipate having geolocation accuracy much better than anyone has seen before.”

— Chris DeMay, HawkEye 360 founder and chief operating officer

“HawkEye 360 is expanding on these existing applications to include land transportation tracking and terrestrial signals coverage as well, in which case the bundling of data streams on global transportation networks does represent a unique data product,” Belle said by email. However, the success of business will depend on how easily and efficiently customers can feed the new data into their own analysis systems.

“As satellite companies extend from the traditional customer base to new users without experience in manipulating space-based data and services, it is more critical to provide a streamlined user interface,” Belle said, adding that customers also are likely to demand a robust tracking service, which means HawkEye 360 will need many small satellites to offer global coverage.

HawkEye 360 plans to operate 18 satellites in six of its three-satellite clusters. Initially, the firm plans to demonstrate its formation flying prowess and its ability to pinpoint ground-based radio frequency signals with a three-satellite cluster scheduled to launch within the next few years, Serafini said.

Serafini declined to discuss the cost of its first satellite cluster but said it is “in the single-digit million dollar range.” That cost per cluster will decrease considerably when the firm builds its entire constellation due to economies of scale, he added.

Deep Space Industries (DSI), the company based in Mountain View, California, and known for its asteroid mining ambitions, is the prime contractor for the HawkEye 360 mission. The University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory is supplying satellite platforms based on its designs for the Canadian Advanced Nanospace Experiment-4 and -5 formation flying demonstration satellites launched in 2014.

HawkEye 360 announced plans July 26 to work with Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver. The companies plan to conduct periodic reviews of each other’s technical capabilities in an effort to improve their products, Serafini said. This collaboration will help HawkEye 360 reach Lockheed Martin’s extensive customer base in the United States and around the world, he added.

DSI is building water thrusters for Hawkeye 360 satellite propulsion. The water thrusters are the only part of the Hawkeye 360 space segment that has not flown before. “It is a relatively simple system,” says Grant Bonin, DSI chief engineer. “We jokingly refer to it as a flying steam kettle because it exhaust is super heated water vapor.”


Fighting interference

Satellite operators are always on the lookout for radio frequency interference.

“We have tools, people and operations centers that deal with it,” said Mark Daniels, vice president of new technologies and services for Intelsat General Corp. “We have monitoring systems that scan all of our satellites. It’s a routine part of our business.”

Still, the increasingly crowded space environment coupled with plans by new satellite operators including OneWeb and SpaceX to launch hundreds or thousands of new communications satellites have made interference mitigation a top priority for the Space Data Association, a nonprofit group of international satellite operators also focused on preventing spacecraft collisions.

For now, interference mitigation is largely a ground-based enterprise. Satellite operators like Intelsat use geolocation systems to pinpoint the source.

“We see where interference pops up on our spectrum analyzers and normally we know who that customer is,” said Daniels, who also serves as a Space Data Association executive director. “We get them on the phone and ask them to either shut down their carrier, decrease power or adjust the antenna.”

Intelsat also is addressing interference with its new generation of satellites. In January, the firm launched its first EpicNG satellite, Intelsat 29e, with a digital processor to detect signals that create interference and shift customer traffic to transmission beams away from those signals.

In the future, startups like Hawkeye 360 may play a role in interference mitigation.

“The space-based businesses that are looking at doing interference detection are certainly of interest to operators,” Daniels said. “We are hopeful they will get their business plans approved. Maybe that will be another capability we can take advantage of in the future.”

In addition, the Space Data Association is working to establish a Carrier Identification database. The group, along with Global VSAT Forum and the Satellite Interference Reduction Group, are encouraging satellite operators to embed an identifying code in uplink signals. With that code, operators who experience interference could turn to the database to find the location and contact information for the source of the interference, Daniels said.

Debra Werner