Infostellar Aims to Make Satellite Access Less of a Dark Art

(Bloomberg) -- Telling satellites what to do is expensive, complicated and can only be done a few times a day.

Infostellar Inc. is aiming to change that, by getting satellite operators to share their antennas. By connecting dishes around the world to create a single network, everyone from meteorologists and farmers can link up with satellites anytime, anywhere without waiting for one to pass overhead. The Tokyo-based startup, which is assembling a global platform of antennas, just won its first funding round of $7.3 million led by Airbus SE’s venture arm.

Infostellar’s network is aimed at driving down the cost of communicating with satellites and generating data now too expensive to track. As a result, digital maps could be updated more frequently, tracking the movement of people, cars and clouds in real time. Access to cheaper, satellite imagery could also help investors, like those tracking manufacturing activity or crop yields through satellite photos, obtain information more regularly.

Infostellar Aims to Make Satellite Access Less of a Dark Art

“People want to achieve many things with satellites, but right now they’re all constrained by having just one antenna and a tiny window to communicate,” said Infostellar co-founder Naomi Kurahara. The 36-year-old came up with the idea while pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, frustrated by the limited access she had to the Kyushu Institute of Technology’s satellite.

To understand the challenge, consider the two primary types of satellites. Geostationary birds keep a fixed position far above the Earth and are generally easier to communicate with, while low-earth orbit satellites circle the planet at faster speeds, making it more difficult for terrestrial dishes to reach them. LEO satellites are typically within range of a single antenna only four times a day, for about 10 minutes at a time. That means that the owner of a single dish, like Kurahara’s school, collects data a few times daily.

Infostellar Aims to Make Satellite Access Less of a Dark Art

Infostellar’s technology is designed to overcome that limitation by letting satellite owners share antennas around the world. The Kyushu Institute, for example, would be able to use the software to pull in data from ground stations in Europe or Africa. Kurahara said Infostellar’s main product -- small computers that link up to each antenna and the wider data-sharing platform -- have already been built. The company plans to begin testing them on multiple continents by the end of the year, with a full roll out by the end of 2018.

Low-earth orbit birds are projected to number more than 1,000 next year, in part because they’re cheaper than geostationary ones. Planet Labs Inc., San Francisco-based startup, is sending up dozens of shoebox-sized satellites armed with high-power cameras that cost about $1 million apiece. Using the satellites, hedge funds can scour Wal-Mart parking lots to measure traffic flows during back-to-school seasons, while farmers can assess crop health and estimate optimal harvest times.

“As we move to thousands or tens-of-thousands of low-earth-orbit satellites, and the amount of data they’re gathering becomes more accessible in real time, more of us will benefit,” said Lewis Pinault, the managing investment partner for Airbus Ventures in Japan who joined Infostellar’s board. “Any company with an interest in big data and any individual -- you, me, consumers -- with an interest in accessing big data can suddenly get more access.”

As a whole, the global satellite industry brought in revenue of $260.5 billion last year, with the network-equipment sector growing by 7.3 percent to $10.3 billion, according to Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm.

Kurahara has competition. RBC Signals LLC, based in Redmond, Washington, is already doing something similar, with a network of 30-plus antennas around the world. Others like Michigan-based Atlas Space Operations Inc. and Milan-based Leaf Space operate their own ground stations and rent them out to customers in the mining, agriculture and energy industries. Because Infostellar is tapping into existing dishes, Kurahara contends the company’s model of sharing access among a broader network of dishes will scale better and drive costs lower by a factor of 10.

Infostellar will use the new funding to build and distribute its machines to antenna operators around the world for free. Everyone from universities to small companies and governments will get paid whenever their dishes are used to communicate with a satellite, bringing in additional revenue.

“The people who build antennas are basically those with satellites -- you build it to communicate with the satellite,” Kurahara said. “When I talk to antenna owners, they’re happy to earn revenue when their antennas are unused. ”

Kurahara, now chief executive officer of Infostellar, started the company in 2016 with Kazuo Ishigame and Toshio Totsuka. Five months into the venture, she found out she was pregnant and gave birth at the end of last year. She brought her newborn son to pitch the business to Airbus investors in February, walking them through her presentation with the baby sleeping by her side. People are surprisingly supportive about combining work and child rearing, said Kurahara, who brings her son to work. “It’s all up to how you do it,” she said.