Finland-based ICEYE is moving into high gear. The Earth observation company building a fleet of synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) microsatellites announced it has secured $34 million in series B funding and plans to conduct 9 satellite launches by the end of 2019. It’s a rapid expansion, given the launch of the company’s first pathfinder satellite was less than six months ago.
ICEYE second round participants include previous investors True Ventures, Draper Nexus, Draper Associations, Seraphim Capital and Space Angels. New participants include OTB, Tesi, Draper Esprit and Promus Ventures. So far the company has raised a total of $53 million, including government financing from Finland and the European Union’s (EU) Horizon 2020 program.
In January, ICEYE put the first group in the world to launch a SAR satellite weighing in under 100 kilograms. Previous SAR satellites have typically been 10 times or larger due to a combination of antenna and power requirements. Radar provides imagery through clouds and in darkness, a key advantage over optical imaging and an attribute desired by both governments and businesses.
The successful launch of the ICEYE-X1 pathfinder has quickly lead to agreements with maritime customers wanting better information on ice conditions in polar sea areas, along with a contract with Ursa Space Systems to use SAR data for monitoring oil wells and measuring global oil storage.
Two more ICEYE satellites will be launched this year, with a total of nine satellite launches conducted by the end of 2019. The current ICEYE-X1 satellite provides resolution of 10 meters and sends back data via radio, but future satellites will be significantly improved. Resolution will go up to 3 meters and images will be sent back via laser communications links at rates up to 10 Gbps, enabling satellites to more quickly download imagery.
Radar imagery has traditionally been expensive and relatively scarce, with satellites built and operated as national assets. But the recent surge in commercial imagery and third-party analysis firms able to process it for value has lead to business interest in more data, with insurance companies, hedge funds, and construction firms leading the charge. In addition, the U.S. government would love having access to a commercial SAR constellation for monitoring events around the world.
At the same time, applying newer technologies and techniques from New Space has lead to smaller, lower-cost SAR satellites and venture money flowing into startups, with 8 or more companies planning constellations. ICEYE has announced it wants an operational constellation of 18 satellites. Capella Space plans to launch two satellites this year and would like to build a constellation of 36 satellites for hourly revisits of locations. XpressSAR plans to launch four SAR satellites in 2020 to cover the cloud-persistent regions of the world between 40 degrees North and 40 degrees South. Umbra Labs is working on a 12 microsatellite constellation delivering resolution of 0.25 meters — a radical leap from the typical 3 meter resolution of SAR satellites.