Why am I not talking about SLS in this analysis, considering all the hoopla surrounding it during the past few days? Simple–I view that public works program as a dead end: by design, it is not the future of commercial space.
The Governor’s Dilemma
Nearly a year ago, I wrote up an analysis about California governor Gavin Newsom’s frustration with his inability to get the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) infrared missile warning satellites tasked to monitor the wildfires ravaging his state. I noted during the analysis that it wasn’t a great idea to re-task military assets from their day-to-day monitoring to accomplish a mission that civil space resources should tackle (of course, there aren’t any civil resources).
I ended that article noting that Newsom’s challenge is truly an opportunity for commercial space startups/companies since no civil version of this type of service exists:
“Why not contract with a commercial satellite manufacturer and operator to build a LEO (or maybe GEO–it depends) constellation with IR sensors onboard to monitor for wildfires? Identify what the state and all stakeholders in wildfire management truly need and tailor the constellation to fulfill them. It would cost less than a single year’s worth of property losses in California ($13-12 billion, depending on the year)–or maybe even a single SBIRS satellite. It will undoubtedly cost less than the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared constellation the military wants to implement ($14.4 billion at least).”
That analysis eventually led me to a business plan for one of my master's classes. The plan and the studies conducted leading up to it were for deploying an infrared wildfire detection constellation of smallsats called BlazeWatch (and I’ll get to details later, but I aced it). The point of the constellation was to monitor and detect wildfires, with notifications going out from the service within 15 minutes of those detections. When I conducted a feasibility study for the constellation, I noted the following as challenges to feasibility (from greatest to least):
Commercial Infrared for Wildfires (and other stuff)
A recent Via Satellite interview with OroraTech’s CEO is why I referred to my earlier analysis and plan. German company OroraTech plans to deploy a constellation of smallsats with infrared sensor payloads that should precisely meet California’s (and other wildfire-prone areas around the world) needs. I first heard of Orora in 2019 and caught a few of their folks at a booth at SmallSat in Utah for a short conversation. At the time, I’d asked them who they thought the company’s customers would be. It was a difficult question for them to answer. But the company’s idea seemed feasible.
I will assume that OroraTech’s challenges match the ones I selected for my class business plan. Its organizational and technical aspects are in the company’s control. OroraTech’s management determines resource needs and structure. Its team must figure out and develop/buy the technologies required to make it all come true. Financial and market feasibility are less in OroraTech’s control. Based on smallsat trends, the company requires much less financially than what has been paid for similarly large constellations before (which is favorable to the company). However, the wildfire monitoring and notification market is new(ish), and therefore territory not trod on by commercial companies before. Stepping into new territory is risky for any company.
The company’s CEO, Thomas Grübler, seems able to elaborate during the interview about who he believes is the market in his company’s sights: “state fire departments, forest owners, and reforestation companies.” He also sees possibilities for OroraTech to provide data to insurance companies, real estate developers, and energy providers. Based on my research for the class business plan, a few of those appear to be excellent, legitimate customers to chase.
I observed in my business plan that:
“There are no space industry services remotely close to what BlazeWatch would offer its customers. The lack of similar service types means that forecasts based on existing businesses are unavailable. However, some figures do show some of the promises that BlazeWatch holds.
Satellites with infrared sensor payloads fall under satellites' "Earth observation/remote sensing" (E.O.) category. Commercially operated satellites with optical sensor payloads dominate this category, and as noted earlier, 2021 revenues were at ~$13.5 billion for businesses in this category. It is a growing category, as 2021's revenues were significantly more than the $2.24 billion in revenues the EO/RS businesses earned in 2011. (Borowitz, 2012)
A recent European report, released from the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), helps bracket the lower end of the estimates, specifically for E.O./RS-derived data and services. In 2021, EUSPA estimated the various businesses and organizations supplying data and services in that sector earned revenues of around €337 million. Furthermore, the agency forecasted a near doubling of those revenues in ten years (2031) at €657 million. (EUSPA, 2022) EUSPA's revenue chart helps depict the growth. However, it also highlights BlazeWatch's unique mission as the company's data doesn't fit neatly in any of the categories the agency uses in its analysis. Using EUSPA's definitions, BlazeWatch's data would fall among the various monitoring and definition data & services. Source: (2022). EUSPA EO and GNSS Market Report Innovative Solutions for Health”
There’s reason to believe that OroraTech’s data will also fall into similar, not quite defined straits as BlazeWatch. But the good news for OroraTech is that the EU thinks the overall EO/RS category will grow. While it is not a match, there is another market that demonstrates a hunger for keeping possessions and lives safe: the terrestrial fire alarm and security services. That market is much more defined and profitable. Annual revenues for those services in 2022 are estimated to be ~$22-23 billion for the U.S. market alone.
“The world is burning. And it will get much worse.”--Thomas Grübler
Grübler is on point with his observation, and he’s not being hyperbolic. There is a definite need for combating wildfires and saving lives and property. Consider (from my plan):
“Wildfires are a problem worldwide that impacts lives, livelihoods, economies, and resources. In the U.S. alone during 2018, 8.8 million acres were burned, and ~15,000 lives were lost. Nearly 26,000 structures (70% of those were residences) burned. (Congressional Research Service, 2021) In the same year, insured losses in California were $12 billion ($1 billion less than in 2017). (Bary, 2020)
Citizens in Australia are an example of other nations facing devastating losses from wildfires. In2019, Australians lost ~3,500 homes and 34 people, while insurance losses are estimated to be around $1.3 billion. (Center for Disaster Philanthropy, 2019)”
Those are some of the latest examples of areas that face worsening wildfires annually. OroraTech will eventually be offering a service that can potentially help those nations and states save billions of dollars and thousands of lives annually. Its service could eventually become invaluable to nations facing yearly wildfire flare-ups. And yet, it’s entirely likely OroraTech’s constellation, and ground network will cost much less than a single military infrared satellite. Nations and states should be hopping on this opportunity–if OroraTech’s technology and service work.
Technically Feasible, but what about Data and Dissemination
OroraTech already has a sensor on a Spire satellite, which was launched in early 2022. The company intends to have an initial constellation of eight satellites deployed sometime in 2023. After that, OroraTech will deploy ~100 cubesats for wildfire monitoring. The satellite structures are uninteresting as they appear to be based on a 3U cubesat design. However, OroraTech’s sensor payload mounted on those cubesats may be a different beast. As I was designing my business plan, I noted the unknown quantity in it was the infrared sensor. It appears that OroraTech is wrestling with similar challenges, based on one of Grübler’s quotes:
“Building a complete satellite with both a new platform and a new payload increases the risk significantly, although the big innovation to prove lies in the payload.”--bold mine
It seems that OroraTech is near the end of developing an infrared sensor payload that will monitor long- and short-wave frequencies. Based on the company’s latest press release, its sensor on the Spire satellite appears to be delivering data.
What’s unclear about OroraTech’s plan is how the company will analyze satellite data (Is it a wildfire?), determine (it is), package, and disseminate it to those who need it. I proposed potential solutions to those challenges for my class constellation. It may be that OroraTech has solutions in its back pocket, but since it’s still a little far out from deploying an entire constellation, it’s decided not to mention them now. The company also doesn’t appear to have a time limit for making those decisions and providing notifications. There’s a definite need to keep false positives down, but the necessary tradeoff may be the time an analyst requires to determine whether the data fits the profile of a wildfire.
Whether or not OroraTech is successful, others will likely jump in to provide similar services.