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Seeing over the rainbow – Manufacturers’ Monthly

Australian space companies are collating innovative skills and resources to develop a world-first at a new space center in New South Wales. Manufacturers’ Monthly sat down with Australian SME Spiral Blue to find out what it hopes to achieve from the exciting new project.

Taofiq Huq, Spiral Blue founder and CEO, recounted having an environmental upbringing. Born in Bangledesh to two agriculturalists, Huq has been starkly aware of the impact the environment has on the livelihoods of people since he was a child. He spoke about his parents’ work from him, who advised money-poor farmers about which crops, fertilizers, seeds and processes to implement.

The 29 year old has seen first-hand how a deteriorating environment hurts the people who live in it. It’s his background from him which led him to form a start-up company after graduating university, to protect the Earth today. Space technology and Earth observation has the power to benefit billions – with an end goal of creating a future where climate change, illegal fishing, natural disasters, and other challenges are managed in an informed manner with data from space.

Earth observation is about capturing images of our world from space, and using the information from such images in agriculture, defence, city planning, investment mining and many different applications. Spiral Blue’s work centers around this, but hopes to take Australian capabilities to a new level with its Space Edge computing technology.

Instead of processing the entire data set from a satellite image on the ground, Space Edge computing allows the satellite to capture some of the data itself. If implemented on a large scale, this would completely evolve Australia’s satellite observation space – which currently spends $5.3 billion every year.

“In Earth observation, when an image is taken these are huge images, spanning tens of kilometers down, each pixel being maybe a meter in size,” he said. “Having to process these very detailed images on the ground is actually quite difficult, but at the moment is necessary. Most of the time, people don’t want to look at the images, they want an answer to help them with their crops, or to identify if there’s an illegal fishing boat in a particular reef.”

By measuring data as its captured on the satellite itself, the ‘answer’ from the images can be sent out instead of large amounts of raw data, allowing for greater efficiency with limited data budgets or downlink the satellites have.

“If you imagine being on a farm and being asked how many sheep are in a busy paddock, you could pull out your smart phone and take a picture. But then you have to count all the sheep, which is going to be difficult,” he explained. “You would rather an image telling you right away the number of sheep in the paddock.”

Knowing he wanted to work in the space industry, Huq said he was faced with two options after he was finished with his studies: complete his PhD or begin a space start-up.

“There wasn’t much of an industry at the time, so I figured I could do an academic degree or have a crack at building the industry myself,” he said. “It made sense to me that if we wanted to continue to grow civilization, we needed to ultimately move to other planets. The billionaires are looking into that, so I thought why we don’t find a way to keep the earth in a good condition until these other plans really start to happen. So our earth observation journey began with looking at pirate ships in the middle of the ocean. When we designed the satellite, we realized that it isn’t capable of capturing such huge areas without some help, which is where our Space Edge computing comes into play.”

Since the company’s inception at the start of 2018, Huq has grown his team to where he humbly says he might be the least skilled engineer at this point. Even the company’s business development manager is currently completing a space degree in Canberra. Spiral Blue now has five software engineers, two or three electrical engineers, mechanical and hardware engineers which totals a team of about ten people.

The Wolfpack Space hub exists to help Australian space manufacturers go from concept to on-orbit flight.

wolfpack space hub

Founded by Saber Astronautics and TCG, the Wolfpack Space hub exists to help Australian space manufacturers go from concept to on-orbit flight. The incubator provides advisory services, industry relationships and training to start-ups, including deep-tech technical support to fly in space with hardware, satellite operations support and customer acquisition advice.

In August last year, the Space Hub received $500,000 in funding as part of the Entrepreneurs Australia incubators grant. As Huq explained, in the last five years Australia’s space industry has started to take shape, with around 100 new companies founded. The global space industry is expected to be worth $1 trillion by 2040, but one of the current barriers Australian companies face is actually going to space, so many pivot to data and sensors.

Wolfpack hopes to bring that on-site expertise so start-ups don’t become discouraged, allowing them to set the price and quality on products to compete with the global market.

Dr Jason Held, Saber Astronautics’ CEO said Wolfpack is a different program from anything Australia has seen before.

“Many excellent incubators know how to build downstream services startups,” he said. “And that is good business for Australia. But flight is where you get the best advantage because you get to own the supply. Those who build the road set the toll.”

The recently opened Space Hub facility in Waterloo, New South Wales connects start-ups with national infrastructure, helping them create onshore manufacturing opportunities and create local jobs.

“Startups that would normally compete are instead supporting each other directly – They join each other’s proposals, share information, and help each other out in ways we haven’t seen elsewhere,” Held added.

One of the start-ups, Spiral Blue, have their eyes on a new project at the hub, which is being funded by the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Center (AMGC). The space mission – in collaboration with the University of New South Wales and fellow startups Esper and Dandelions – will develop the world’s first integrated hyperspectral instrument and onboard computer. Taofiq Huq has an inspiring vision for what that will look like, and will use the new Wolfpack facility in Waterloo to turn it into a reality.

Brian Lim, Dandelions CEO at the Wolfpack Space Hub with Spiral Blue’s Paul Hilton.

Project Rainbow Python

When explaining what a hyperspectral instrument is, Huq begins to explain that most humans only see in three colours. With the three colors at our disposal, we can see detailed, rich information about the world around us.

“Imagine if we could see hundreds of colors,” he said. “With that sort of information, you can tell things like the chemical composition of what you’re looking at. For example, in agriculture, you can actually see to a very high degree of accuracy how much fertilizer is actually in a plot of land and how much water is there? Do I need to apply more pesticides?”

“In a water body, you can see if there are pollutants, levels of certain chemicals that may indicate a biological processes is happening. The fish kills that happened in the Murray Darling is the sort of event this could see. In mining, you can view what minerals are in a landscape to determine where to explore.”

Spiral Blue is working with Esper, a recently created tech company which is developing industry-leading satellite technology with hyperspectral-capable payloads.

Esper’s technology can capture light across a wider spectral range and at a higher spatial resolution than more outdated predecessors. As Huq alluded to, when analysed, hyperspectral data reveals detailed information about what is invisible to the naked eye.

This has applications across a range of industries, but the challenge is within the data: being able to process the extra information. Rainbow Python tackles the satellite imaging problems by utilizing Spiral Blue’s Space Edge 1 Hyperspectral (SE-1H) to analyze stored hyperspectral data cubes while Esper’s Over The Rainbow high resolution hyperspectral imager (OTR) will attempt to capture these datacubes.

“We are working with Esper to put together their camera and our computer so that they don’t have to deal with the pain of having to figure out how to send down such huge volumes of data,” he said. “We can do things like pull out certain bits of information from the image that they actually need, or we can do compression, which helps to overcome that challenge.”

“If you have a piece of infrastructure that costs a million dollars, creating ten units of output per year with loan repayments of $100,000 per year, you better hope that each of those units of output are making you at least $10,000. However, if the piece of infrastructure can now make 100 or 1000 units, then that price can really start to come down. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with earth observation satellites, including in this project.”

Essentially, the ultimate goal of space companies is to be in space. The rainbow Python and the other payloads are to fly together aboard Australia’s first hosted payload and satellite deployment spacecraft, Space Machines’ Optimus. Launch and hosted payload costs are being discounted to accelerate the space qualification of the payloads from Spiral, Esper, and Wise.

“The $578,000 from the AMGC will help us buy the raw materials and components to build the combined products and payloads,” Huq said. “We’ll be putting them on the satellites hopefully next year or the year after.”

Spiral Blue and other project partners together forecast $36 million in revenue over 5 years and 49 jobs created during and one year after project completion.

The collaborative hosted payload model being used is repeatable, meaning it could be used to help accelerate timelines for other new space hardware companies. Huq explained his vision of him for the outcomes of the project.

“It has to be as simple as someone wanting to know the latest information about bushfires being on their phone, visiting a website and seeing information right away,” he said. “This is a technical product which won’t necessarily be available to everyone, but it still has to have that level of simplicity and accessibility in order to really maximize the impact.”

In the long term, Spiral Blue has the ability to help the developing world as well as Australia, to cause close to Huq’s heart.

“Traditionally, American companies and government agencies will develop technology for America and then apply it internationally,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily work out because the conditions in the developing world are very different from the conditions in Europe, America or Australia. So I think our technology has the potential to really bridge that gap and bring this really valuable information to help make better decisions and improve livelihoods.”

“We have an opportunity to not only bring this to governments and companies, but to the poorest of people. If we haven’t achieved that, we haven’t succeeded as a company.”

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