Start-up Spiral Blue Hopes Computers in Space Could Revolutionize Access to Earth Observation Data

An Australian start-up has launched two computers on small satellites to test in-orbit processing of Earth observation images in hopes of making information from space more accessible.

Spiral Blue based in Sydney launched two Space Edge Zero computers in low earth orbit as part of Virgin Orbit Tubular Bells, Part 1 mission on June 30. The founders of the company believe the technology could lead to groundbreaking applications that could in the future automatically track rogue ships in remote ocean areas, track down lost planes, and allow even the poorest farmers to benefit from sightseeing. up.

At the heart of Space Edge Zero technology are powerful Jetson Nano chips built by the company Nvidia, capable of running complex artificial intelligence algorithms. Around $ 120 each and just 2.7 by 1.7 inches (7 by 4.5 centimeters), the chips are light enough but powerful enough to allow Spiral Blue to test image processing for the first time in the world. ‘space.

Spiral Blue CEO Taofiq Huq told that the computers, which were launched aboard two cubesats of Polish company SatRevolution, could expand the use of Earth observation data and reduce the cost of information space to make this knowledge affordable even to users. in developed countries.

Related: Photos: amazing images of Earth from space

Wasted images

“Today, satellites cannot send as much data as they can collect,” Huq said. “It’s like being in the middle of the countryside, not having a good phone connection and trying to upload pictures somewhere.”

Today’s “photos downloaded from satellites” are processed by powerful ground computers. Smart algorithms can detect and count various features, such as the number of cars, the amount of solar panels, or even cracks in water pipes. The problem is, a lot of images are wasted. Earth observation companies prioritize images of areas that sell well, Huq said, leaving less popular areas without access to data.

“If you are in the middle of the countryside or in a second tier town, you will not have access to these images,” he said. “You will have to ask them to take an image especially for you, and that is quite expensive.”

Instead of sending the large image files, Spiral Blue wants to send to the ground only the information that the user really needs.

“If you were sent out to the countryside to, say, count the sheep, you wouldn’t be trying to take pictures of every sheep and then send it back,” Huq said. “You would just count them using your brain and then send that number back.” This is the idea. “

Computers adapted to the space

Processing Earth observation images in space was not possible before, as the technology was simply not ready for the task. It’s not just the size and weight of computer hardware that has only recently decreased, Huq said. Computers in space are exposed to extreme radiation which quickly damages electronic components. Electronics inside satellites also have to deal with high mechanical forces during launch and may need to survive. temperature variations 140 to minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit (60 to minus 160 degrees Celsius).

“Computers have always been difficult in space because of the effects of radiation,” Huq said. “You can’t just buy an Nvidia computer from Amazon and put it in space. It needs to be radiation resistant, you need to have hardware that can handle thermal issues – all of these things can make it quite expensive and limit processing power. . “

Spiral Blue will test the technology they have designed to protect their Nvidia-based computer to work properly over the next few months after SatRevolution completes commissioning of their satellites.

Applications in space

Huq said that in the end, Blue Spiral would offer its platforms to developers of Earth observation data processing software to download their apps to satellites, just like people put apps on their phones and computers.

Users could, for example, count solar panels in an area of ​​interest or ships in remote areas of the ocean. Instead of downloading entire sets of images, the satellite would only report the actual information. As a result, the satellite would turn more images into marketable information.

“The main advantage is that it should make the information a lot cheaper,” Huq said. “If we are able to massively increase the capacity of the satellites, we will spread the initial cost over a greater amount of product, which would allow us to offer it at a much lower cost while still making money. “

Now an Australian citizen, Huq was born in Bangladesh, a South Asian country that has struggled against extreme poverty. His vision is to make Earth observation products so affordable that even small farmers in his home country could benefit.

“Whenever I visit Bangladesh, I go to the countryside and see all the subsistence farmers,” Huq said. “And I think, you know, the US Landsat program or the European Sentinel program, they were all designed for western countries. They really are not applicable for use in developing countries. If it works, I want to be. at a reasonable price, where even the poorest farmer can either directly use the information himself or an agronomist can come and provide this as a service in order to increase his prosperity. “

Find lost planes and track rogue ships

Spiral Blue recently received a Grant of $ 416,250 from the Australian Space Agency to develop their space image processing technology. Previously, the company had started working with Australian authorities on software called Vessel detection who would be autonomously find ships and other ships in the vast Australian maritime territory.

“Australia has a massive maritime border,” Huq said. “Something like 10% of the Earth’s surface is within Australia’s maritime domain. As a result, the country has enormous problems with it. illegal fishing and drug trafficking. “

While satellites regularly fly over the vast Australian waters, downloading the images they acquire during these passages is not efficient.

“We did manual image processing for the project, scanning images of the ocean for ships,” Huq said. “I think we looked at something like 400,000 images, and only 8,000 of them contained real ships. There is no money to take pictures of the empty ocean. But there could be. have a little ship somewhere that might be doing something unusual, or they might be in trouble, and you just miss them. ”

The app Spiral Blue hopes to develop would automatically detect ships on board satellites and send the data for further processing to see which of the ships might be operating illegally or out of course. The app could also help if another aircraft in the future were to go missing in the large ocean areas around the continent, such as the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 probably in 2014. Even after a extensive research campaign which involved the use of advanced underwater robots, no trace of the aircraft was found in ocean waters several kilometers deep.

“The satellites definitely flew over the area where this plane landed,” Huq said. “But at that point, no one could do anything about it.”

Huq hopes that if the technology works, a whole constellation of small satellites equipped with Space Edge computers could soon circle the Earth, and not just by constantly keeping an eye on the planet as other Earth observation companies do, but also deliver information quickly without having to compete for scarce data upload opportunities.

Spiral Blue plans to send its next payload to space in December of this year, still on a SatRevolution satellite, Huq said. The company also signed a contract with an Argentinian company. Satellogic to launch a more powerful computer, based on the Nvidia Jetson Xavier NX chip, for space on a satellite with a resolution of 28 inches per pixel (70 cm) in March 2022. The current payload on board the two SatRevolution satellites will handle images with a resolution of 16 feet per pixel (5 m).

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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