Pekka Laurila, CSO at ICEYE shares his insights into the latest innovations in SAR and how radar satellite imagery will transform agricultural solutions to benefit farmers.

Pekka Laurila, CSO, ICEYE

Since 2014, thousands of small space satellites have been launched into space. What new innovations in sensor technology and small satellites are we seeing and how does this create new opportunities in earth observation?

ICEYE has successfully developed New Space technology that has achieved cost-effectiveness that goes from hundreds of millions of dollars for each radar imaging satellite to single-digit millions for each radar imaging satellite.

The demand for radar imaging (SAR data) has grown extensively as the need to be able to image locations day and night, and even through cloud cover has also increased. Prior to now, it has been incredibly costly, and difficult to create these satellites, which has limited its use more broadly. Until ICEYE entered the market, it hasn’t been feasible for commercial users and often even for government users to launch enough of these satellites.

While it is a fair observation that the demand for SAR data has grown, it would be more accurate to say that it has only now become attainable and accessible with ICEYE proving that small satellite SAR is possible and commercially available right now.

There are two things in particular that are key in earth observation. First, to achieve the necessary reliability of earth observation data for effective operational use for commercial and government users, radar imaging is needed as it works day and night, and even through cloud cover.

Secondly, to achieve the necessary timeliness of earth observation data, a large amount of these radar imaging satellites are needed to image specific locations every few hours, or even hourly, every single day.

What breakthrough technology is ICEYE unleashing? What does SAR in small satellites bring to agriculture? What new insights will this bring to farmers? What other parts of the value chain are set to benefit?

Fitting synthetic-aperture radar technology into a satellite under 100 kg was deemed largely impossible before ICEYE did it. Optical imaging was previously the radar of choice and has benefited from smaller and cheaper spacecraft for a long time before SAR came into play. Until ICEYE’s breakthrough SAR technology came into the scene, SAR was considered a demanding technology that others have attempted to find success with but haven’t been able to. The use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components have not only brought the costs down but have also enabled massive leaps in technology. Just as you don’t want to hold onto the same phone for several years, you don’t necessarily want to use a radar imaging technology from 20 years ago, when the original planning for a traditional SAR satellite unit began. New Space is a completely different approach, with a different mindset towards technology problem sets.

SAR data, either acquired from traditional radar satellites, or from small SAR satellites, can bring similar benefits for agriculture thanks to the fact that radar can image through clouds and any weather conditions, at any time. In addition to that, worldwide agriculture can gain immediate benefits from the use of small SAR satellites from the cost alone. Furthermore, the time to prototype and build a traditional SAR satellite can take more than 10 years, whereas the upsurge of small satellites today, is capable of decreasing these timeframes to less than a year.

Most importantly, the small SAR satellite technology provides unprecedented higher revisit rates, compared to traditional SAR satellites. Moreover, ICEYE’s constellation of small SAR satellites enables timely and persistent monitoring of any agricultural areas in a way actionable information can be updated down to every hour instead of days or several weeks. Larger time series of data can improve the knowledge on crop status, crop phenology, crop health, and more. By utilizing machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence, a massive volume of analytical information will be available, such as accurate predictions on future vegetation conditions, precise information about soil moisture, crop status of different types, as well as harvest season start and end dates – all of which could be accessible on an hourly basis. These outputs are highly valuable for key parties involved in the value chain.

In an increasingly competitive space, how does ICEYE differentiate itself, and what do you see as the biggest challenge in taking your solution to market?

ICEYE is the only organisation in the world that has delivered SAR imaging technology into orbit that will be able to deliver images and information from any place on Earth, updated up to every hour.

ICEYE is a new space company that builds its own technology from off the shelf components. Simple, straightforward design that aims for specific uses that helps us speed up and scale our operations. ICEYE adheres to an agile hardware development process and its SAR sensor is optimized for a microsatellite size category.

We are striving to provide complementary services to others, such as global established aerospace organisations, rather than trying to displace the current market. With the company’s imaging capabilities, ICEYE enables information services that have never been able to be created before. As such, the challenge, and motivation that pushes us forward is about providing more tailored solutions for various governmental and enterprise customers, not only with ICEYE capabilities alone, but also through collaboration with key partners.

How do you as a company identify potential partners or collaborators in the agri-tech space? 

ICEYE is pioneering real-time Geospatial Information Solutions to agri-tech-specific needs.

We deliver end-to-end ICEYE solutions with our wide network of local and global domain-expert partners. We believe that the approach of combining deep technological expertise, building its technology in-house and continual innovation will help the company outpace the competition.

What do you predict as the biggest challenge facing the agricultural sector?

Moving towards the goal of delivering sustainable food and farming solutions on a worldwide scale, we envision the key success factor will lie in the development of data science, analytics and modelling, and precision technology in monitoring crop and soil health & protection, and farming productivity as well.

What are your plans for growing your business over the next 12 months, and why is the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit important to this strategy?

ICEYE is on track to launch a total of five SAR units throughout 2019, expanding its commercial capabilities for the delivery of SAR satellite imagery to customers worldwide while constantly improving SAR sensor technology.

At the summit, decision makers in the agriculture sectors around the world will get to know more about ICEYE’s turn-key solutions customized for various parties along the value chain with the use of radar imagery. As such, ICEYE’s values for the agriculture sectors are more likely to reach the right audiences.

Pekka Laurila will be delivering a presentation on ‘Novel Agritech Monitoring Solutions with Rapid-Revisit Radar Satellite Data’ at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London on October 15 at 11.15am.

Download ICEYE’s recent report on Persistent Agricultural Land Monitoring with Daily Radar Satellite Data.