The
View from Initialized

Albedo Space: How High-Res Space Imagery will Change Everything

It’s not every day a company has the potential to improve something by 10x or more. Albedo Space is doing just that by creating affordable, high-resolution satellite cameras that are game-changing for multiple major industries across the world.

Today’s startup got started from a tweet by Trump. Trump posted a classified 10 centimeter accuracy image from one of the most highly top secret spy satellites, and people didn’t even know that an image of this quality was possible.

I sat down with Topher Haddad, founder of Albedo Space. His satellite will be so good that it’ll provide that level of images without spending billions of dollars to do it. That’s why Initialized led a $10 million round for this company.

Computers can now see, and with Albedo, they’ll be able to see the world with clarity that was never possible before. This is going to push everything forward, from better maps for autonomous vehicles to better wildfire detection to save people’s homes. Albedo Space is a big deal, and we’re really proud to be a part of it.

What is Albedo?

Garry: Topher, thank you so much for joining me on the YouTube channel today.

Topher: Thanks for having me, Garry. I’m super excited to be here.

Garry: To start off, what is Albedo?

Topher: Albedo designs and operates low orbit satellites that capture both visible and thermal imagery at the highest resolution commercially available. Visible imagery is 9x higher than what’s available today, and our thermal imagery is 1000x higher than what’s available.

Garry: That sounds like a really big breakthrough. Walk me through what we’re looking at.

Topher: This is a representation of the state of the art 30 centimeter resolution today. You can also see the 10 centimeter image, which shows a lot more detail. For property insurance applications, they really need that 10 or 15 centimeter resolution to do roof measurements and have that accuracy. In terms of information, in the 10 centimeter resolution, we can see what type of car it is and the color. A lot of the applications available are not as intuitive as you would expect with satellite imagery. From a computer vision accuracy as well as new applications perspective, there’s a lot of potential here.

Garry: On the thermal side, being able to see not just 9x better but actually 1000x better than what is commercially available is a real breakthrough.

Topher: We’re really excited about the thermal imagery. It’s kind of like a new data set on the commercial market. There are a few satellites that do thermal today from space in the 70 to 100 meter regime, but because we’re doing such high-resolution visible, we have the opportunity to capture the long wavelengths of thermal at a much higher resolution than what’s available today.

Albedo Space is much faster at providing imagery when you need it

Garry: Not only is it better, it’s quite a bit faster. What does that do for your use cases, and how can you make it that much faster?

Topher: There are a lot of applications that need imagery to be fresh and not a day old. This is the case in a lot of scenarios today for natural disasters and agriculture, which are really sensitive to latency. Today, one of the big enablers for us is that Amazon and Microsoft are building ground stations around the world that basically plug our satellite straight into the cloud, so we can really reduce latency from days to minutes or hours.

Garry: That’s one of the really exciting things about what’s happening now with space technology — before it was one monolith and you had to spend an infinite amount of money to get a billion-dollar satellite up there. Now, there’s a whole ecosystem out there and you can put together an amazing service uniquely focused on the part that only you can and need to do.

Topher: Exactly — only build it if you have to kind of thing. With the ground stations, in terms of satellite components and hardware, there are all these new space companies building commodity buses and different parts of the satellite as well as on the launch side — a huge cost reduction there.

How is this technology used?

Garry: Let’s get into the use cases because that’s where the rubber hits the road on better, faster, cheaper, but for who and how?

Topher: Our customers and applications fall into two different categories. The first is customers that have been limited to aerial imagery until Albedo because they need thate 10 to 15 centimeter resolution captured from planes. The other group is applications that are computer vision-based and super sensitive to resolution, and the accuracy improves significantly with higher resolution.

In the aerial imagery case, mapping companies and property insurance companies use a lot of imagery today for general mapmaking like you see on Google Maps but also HD mapping in autonomous vehicles and augmented reality as those become more prevalent. On the insurance side, evaluating weather damage, remote underwriting and property characterization, measuring roofs are applications that will get all the benefits now from a satellite that has global coverage, higher frequency of updates and the on-demand tasking that gets both the aerial resolution and the benefits of a satellite.

Garry: We were earliest investors in Cruise Automation, which was a hard tech company that showed you could make something that was highly pragmatic in the autonomous vehicle space. Before it was Google X and maybe it would never ship, but here we are today with multiple multibillion dollar companies that are far more practical than they were. That’s the company that really taught us that computers can see.

Now that is playing out here with Albedo too. Computers need to be able to see with extreme centimeter accuracy. The more that software can interface with the real world, the more that software and those software companies can actually be hardware companies. They can actually touch the real world and have a much deeper impact on all of us, so these applications totally resonate with that vision. What about on the thermal side?

Topher: You can see this image of a power plant. For background, there’s a group, Climate TRACE, that is trying to standardize emissions reporting for the entire globe, and in the image above, you can see that actually only two out of four towers are active. That’s because the thermal is imaging heat. So, Climate TRACE can take this heat signature and combine it with other fuel types and the surface properties of the material and calculate accurate carbon emissions day or night from every power plant in the globe.

When you combine it with visible, you can do things like irrigation issue detection for agriculture as well as just general information about vegetation. Utility companies, for example, are really trying to get it together with wildfire prevention and are spending about $14 billion in the U.S. alone on the vegetation management problem around power lines. They do that with helicopters and driving trucks along power lines and are starting to move towards using imagery to increase the frequency of updates on more of a monthly basis to map those high-risk areas.

Garry: All of those are ridiculously huge use cases. On the agriculture side, one of the things we’ve been tracking is if you have better data about your crops, you can grow them far more efficiently. It’s crazy that even today, a lot of people don’t use any data. They either have to resort to very expensive sensors or aerial imagery, or they literally have a person in a truck drive around and take notes on what’s happening. Those manual systems are quite imperfect.

To put it in perspective, agriculture obviously touches absolutely every single one of us.  Every one of us needs to eat. If you can increase the efficiency of agriculture even by a few percentage points, you are meaningfully affecting global GDP. This is one of the more practical versions of applying the cutting-edge of software and hardware to make the world significantly better in a very fundamental way.

Then take wildfires for example. California has suffered immensely from lack of wildfire prevention, wildfire management and detection. In a moment, you would make California far more livable and safer for people. So, there’s a really crazy impact here with Albedo.

Why space? What satellites?

Garry: How did you get into space and space tech, and how did you come up with the idea for Albedo?

Topher: My technical background and career prior to this was at Lockheed Martin, working on different classified remote sensing systems out in the Bay Area. I held the role of imaging science, optics lead of translating early-stage resolution requirements or image quality requirements into an actual architecture and satellite design. I did that for about four years, and then, getting into the Albedo story — some folks remember this, but one of Trump’s more famous tweets was a satellite image that turned out to be from a classified satellite.

Garry: How crazy is that? It looks like people really didn’t have a concept for how high quality this type of imagery even could be.

Topher: Exactly. It proved that 10 centimeters from space was possible. People saw it and were like, “Woah, that’s way higher resolution. That looks like 10 centimeters per pixel,” much higher than what we have available commercially. This caused a lot of buzz in our industry.

A few months later, I was reading an article about a panel of existing CEOs of satellite imaging companies and different industry leaders talking about the tweet. The question was posed, “Would there be a commercial market for this level of resolution of imagery that Trump tweeted, 10 centimeters?” The panel said, “Oh, yeah, there will totally be a market. It would be game changing and enable a ton of new applications, but it would cost over a billion dollars to build a satellite that would capture that because it would have to be the size of Hubble, which is the size of a school bus and just wouldn’t make sense from a business model perspective.”

Reading that and in my time spent translating resolution requirements into architectures and coming up with all the various combinations of what an architecture would look like, my gut response was, “Well, today you could do a lot of different things using a new space tech to fly the satellites much lower, shrinking the size of the satellite required to capture 10 centimeters.”

I went down a rabbit hole of spreadsheets, looking at how small you could actually get this thing to still capture 10 centimeters. I discovered the regulations that enabled commercial sale of higher resolution capabilities had changed, and that’s where the Albedo idea formed.

I pulled in my co-founders, Winston Tri on the product side — he’s our CPO; we went to undergrad together, and he’s spent his time on the user side as a software engineer at Facebook, working with imagery and lidar data for different applications in 5G — and AJ Lasater, our CTO leading up the space side of things. AJ and I worked together at Lockheed Martin, and he’s more of a general mission architect that has worked a lot of different types of space programs and is a jack of all trades when it comes to space.

Garry: That’s incredible. That is one of the coolest “why now” stories to me because the best people to start businesses like this are the people who are deeply embedded in the weeds, actually having built these systems, made design decisions and seen the trade-offs. I really like that. Here’s this thing that human beings are capable of now, the state of the art seems to claim that it’s going to take a billion dollars to do it, and having been the person who is even more of an expert than the experts, you can think about first principles, figure out how to do it and then do it. And you’re mid-flight on that.

Why now for space tech?

Garry: Earlier, we were talking about how there’s a lot on the space side that’s enabling this. You mentioned, for instance, AWS with base stations. What else? It sounds like there’s quite a lot that is coming together to make this the perfect moment for Albedo.

Topher: There are four main enablers for this, and two of those enable us to fly the satellite really low. One of those is electric propulsion, which enables the fuel on your satellite to become much more efficient at the expense of low thrust. This means the satellite can’t move anywhere quickly in space. Historically, you wouldn’t fly low because the atmospheric drag would pull the satellite down quickly, and electric propulsion enables us to stay afloat in the atmosphere for a long enough period of time for a good mission life.

We’re also designing an on-orbit refueling capability because there’s a big movement in on-orbit servicing in different companies, like Orbit Fab and Astroscale, that are working on refueling satellites. This isn’t available today, but by the time our first few satellites need it or down the road, we’ll be able to extend that lifetime by flying really low. The refueling and electric propulsion enable that low orbit.

On the general cost side and infrastructure, our satellites are bigger than normal in the new space world — they’re like refrigerator size — and SpaceX has just brought down launch costs so much that now we can affordably launch bigger systems into space, not just kind of shoe box size satellites because optics is still a very physics limited problem and we need a decent sized telescope to capture 10 centimeters.

Albedo Space is Hiring

Garry: Albedo is hiring. Where can people learn more about Albedo, and how can they contact you?

Topher: We’re super excited to work with you and the team at Initialized. We are hiring. We have our jobs posted on our website Albedo.space. We’re hiring for both ground software positions as well as on the space side. We also recently decided that we’re going to be a remote-first company. If you’re interested in applying and seeing what we have to offer, we’re hiring in the U.S., and we’d love to hear from you. We’ll have hubs in Austin and Denver for employees who want to go into an office.

Garry: Space is cool, and the use cases are cool. Anytime you have on the order of 10x to 1000x better,  that’s pushing forward technology, and you don’t get that every day. Thanks for hanging out, Topher!

Topher: This was a blast. Thanks, Garry.

For more conversations like the above, along other leadership and startup topics, be sure to check out my YouTube channel and subscribe. To stay up-to-date with all the latest Albedo news, follow them on Twitter.