Mark Boggett, managing director of the Seraphim Space Fund, the world’s first space-focused venture fund, talks to InnovOil about how space technology is changing and how new techniques are being applied to the energy industry.
Space may be the final frontier, but the availability of new technology much closer to Earth is having a profound effect on global industry.
Advances and cost reductions in components have meant that more satellite data can be collected and relayed than ever before. The advent of The Cloud and on-demand computing power also provides the necessary legwork to process that data into a usable, valuable form. With cheaper, better sensors and communications networks, that trend is only set to continue – and oil and gas exploration may be one of the greatest beneficiaries.
To learn more about what the impacts of such innovation may be, InnovOil spoke with the managing director of the world’s first venture fund focused on space technology. Below, Seraphim’s Mark Boggett explains how technologies designed for the space industry, including imaging, robotics, AI and sensors, are now helping terrestrial operations.
How is space technology changing? The space industry is undergoing an important period of change resulting in an increasing number of companies looking to apply space technology to other industries.
Costs have lowered significantly in the industry, which has led to lower data costs and therefore more data. Concurrently, there is a convergence of other technology that is making that data more actionable.
The satellite industry has traditionally produced satellites that cost between US$50 million and US$100 million to launch and weigh 3 tonnes. What’s happened in recent years is that entrepreneurs and outsiders from the space industry have started to identify that there are components that they can just buy off the shelf, many of which have been developed for the smartphone industry and that, by putting them together in an intelligent way, they can create satellites.
This means that satellites with much the same or better functionality can now be produced for between US$25 and US$50 million dollars and they weigh only 100kg.
There are also a whole range of smaller satellites called nanosats which cost from US$100,000 to US$200,000 and weigh only 5kg. They can have good enough functionality for a whole range of centres.
Big space companies typically own small constellations of satellites because they’re so expensive. These satellites last from 10 to 15 years and therefore the technology gets antiquated pretty quickly.
What are the advantages of a smaller satellite? Because these new satellites are smaller you can launch more of them – even in a single launch. That’s very much changing the market. Because costs are falling a lot of new entrants are coming into the market so non-traditional space companies are now competing with the traditional space companies.
You have a combination of smaller, lighter and cheaper satellites and falling costs to accessing space, meaning we are going through a period where a lot more satellites will be launched. Those satellites are cheaper therefore the data that they can offer is at lower cost.
What will more satellites mean? Because there are more satellites the revisit times that they go over any point of earth is increased dramatically to the point that you could almost get to a point of thinking about a real time solution.
Historically people had to rely on data that was months or years out of date – or if they were looking at something that was more frequent than that then probably 12 days would be a good revisit time – whereas now we are talking about multiple times in one day. In future that could become multiple times per hour.
How is this technology applied to the oil and gas sector? One company that is using new and evolving smart image recognition techniques is called Terrabotics. They use 2D imagery from satellites to create 3D terrain data. The oil and gas industry would use this kind of data for pipe laying to understand what the terrain would look like, for instance, or for laying oil pipes in inhospitable areas The company is developing image processing, computer vision and geospatial algorithms and then transforming massive amounts of data – as in terabytes of data – from these satellites to turn them into value-added data analytics products which they serve via software using Statistical Analysis System (SAS).
They’ve basically taken techniques that are used in the medical field – so in this instance it’s a technique that is used for enhancing MRI brain scans and then applied it to the satellite industry. They are able to infer data from the 2D data that is presented so you end up with a series of images rather than a single image. This is where the multiple, bigger constellations of satellites really help. What they’re then able to do is derive sub-pixel level resolution from satellite imagery meaning they can provide rapid and automated results to create 3D terrain. In this way, they are able to produce automated terrain maps within minutes that more traditional techniques used by the oil and gas industry would have taken weeks if not months to produce.
Another application for the same technology is to be able to look at changes over time – i.e. technology that can look at the same terrain data in 3D and then do an analysis to work out how that image has changed.
This could be used for mining, for instance, to look at an open-cast mine and then identify the volume of earth that has been moved and how it has moved. You could use this technology to measure levels of production and so on. It’s only just becoming available now because of several things happening at once: changes in satellite technology that is making them cheaper, more readily available and with higher revisit times; machine vision which is the sensor techniques that are collecting this data and then converting it into digital output – that’s really coming of age and it’s only really just happening now; and importantly, you’ve got parallel computing available in the cloud so any of these start ups can now access super computing power effectively by just tapping into the likes of Amazon. This means they can crunch a lot more data cost effectively and more quickly than they’ve ever been able to before.
What all this means is more much actionable intelligence. The world has really moved forward in the last year and that’s really going to accelerate how these areas are all coming together to create some actionable intelligence for different markets like oil and gas but also maritime, agriculture, insurance, hedge funds, smart surveillance and so on. Many different industries use this kind of data.
What are other companies doing? Another group of companies are really centring their work on using artificial intelligence – they use an algorithm to remove noise from satellite imagery and then on top of that, once they’ve cleaned the data, they then apply artificial intelligence methods to bring out the knowledge from the data. Companies involved in that for the oil and gas industry are companies such as Orbital Insight and SpaceKnow. They are tracking trends through space and they provide analytics as a space product to the industry.
Then there’s another group of companies that are taking a different approach that are really using the low-cost nanosats to provide a different level of service. Low revisit time of imaging platforms has previously been a barrier, however these latest constellations of new satellites with their high revisit times makes the data much more useful. When multiple 20-plus files are available across a relatively short period of time over an area of interest this provides much higher granularity of change data that can be measured.
So some companies are using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensors to do this – this is a very high quality technique where they can actually look through the crowds to give an image of the ground. There are lots of applications for oil and gas and military for using this type of sensor. Companies like Iceye or Geomatic Ventures are specifically start ups that are using SAR data to provide solutions to the oil and gas industry.
Then another group of companies that are using space-related knowledge to support the oil and gas industry are drone companies. As a fund we consider drones to be low flying satellites. They can effectively leverage all the sensor technology and know how from the space industry to provide applications to the drone industry.
What do drones offer over satellites? What’s really exciting about drones is that you can change the payloads, meaning that you can revisit the same areas multiple times even in a day, but you can do so even with different sensors. This is a really powerful way of being able to provide a multi-modal data fusion that can draw more information out of a data set.
A company called Sky Futures is one of the leaders in oil and gas inspections using drones. They already have many customers in the oil and gas market but are really only just starting to scratch the surface of what is available for the drones to be able to do.
We see very big opportunities for satellites and drones to be able to work together in harmony to provide different types of data sets that can be used by these data analytics companies to provide some very high quality output. The oil and gas industry would be a big customer base for them.
How does the Seraphim Space Fund fit into all of this? Our main focus as a fund is on identifying companies that use data drawn from satellites fused with terrestrial data, apply data analytics techniques and then add artificial intelligence, in order to provide useful actionable data for different industries.
Investors in the fund are big space companies like Airbus and Surrey Satellites. They provide us with access to their resources to help evaluate proposals we get.
We also have a strategic partnership with the European Space Agency.
There is a huge pool of hundreds of businesses that are looking at ways of using this new low cost data to provide applications to various markets from insurance to oil and gas, the internet of things, smart cities and intelligent transport.