Launching a New Space Economy with Natalya Bailey (Accion Systems), Peter Beck (Rocket Labs) and Will Marshall (Planet) | Disrupt SF (Day 1)
2:56AM Sep 6, 2018
will now hear from Natalya Bailey with ACCION systems, Peter Beck with rocket lab's and will Marshall with planet the appropriately named planet. And to moderate the panel. We have our own very fantastic senior writer Devon cold away. Ladies, Gentlemen, big hands.
Well, thank you all for joining me here today. It's quite a lineup we've got here right off the bat, though, I feel like I should, we should clarify something. People talk about the sort of new space industry, then you guys are all in it. But you'll do very different things. You've got satellite components, like high launch cadence, rockets, and orbital imagery and analysis, what are these things have in common that makes them part of this new space industry, as opposed to what we might have had 10 years ago, 20 years ago,
feel free to anybody jump on that grenade. But I could start off look, I think that there's quite a revolution in space going on. There's a bit of a Renaissance and it's been driven by a few things. But the biggest thing in the satellite side of it is actually the miniaturization of electronics that you can stuff into a little tiny box much more than was possible just 1020 years ago. And, and that means and cost of launch, which has stayed relatively flat for decades. But you can stuff more capabilities in that launch vehicle like 100 or 1000 x what was possible even 1020 years ago. So we're leveraging the billions of dollars have been spent in consumer electronics to make satellites more, I think that's the core of most of the change that's happening. I think there's also a slight different risk approach, which is just that's not do it the old school way, where everything has to work with 99.99% probability of success, rather, in our guys throw up more satellites than we need. And if a few fail, no big deal. But that in turn, enables us to put the latest components on it, because we don't mind using something that hasn't been tested yet in space. That was something that wasn't ever done before, which is why sensors in spacecraft before we're typically very old and obsolete by the time they were launched. So it was different risk approach, miniaturization of sensors, I think that leads us to where we are today.
Yeah, I agree completely with Well, I mean, you know, the miniaturization has been in a key element and a few you break break apart a spacecraft, what is it, you know, it's, it's electronics, code, batteries and solar panels all which have gone through through massive, massive change. And then, you know, for us on the launch side, you know, we see, we see ourselves as really the enablers to to a lot of this, while this revolution, as our job is, is basically to be a glorified fright company. And our job is to get, you know, to get these small spacecraft on orbit. And the biggest, the biggest shift for us is really around frequency. It's, you know, there's, there's a lot of technology, and there's a lot of regulatory and a lot of stuff. But it really the big needle mover here is, is actually frequency
what they said, I hope, you know, new space really, truly doesn't body have a different risk posture. And I would love to see something closer to like, 50% reliable being okay. And building an industry around that. And I also think new space means a bit more consumer facing or new commercial applications and historically have been absolutely.
And to be clear, I think we're talking about a 50% once it's up in space, not not a 50, 50% top
hundred percent success rate on the little I
can make it cheap enough so that we can have 50% at the launch level. Maybe someday. Yeah,
I think I think the metric is probability of success times cost, right. And so if Yeah, I mean, because the launch costs dominate us. So yeah, I mean, definitely 80% poverty, success will be just fine. I'm 100%, 100%.
I don't, I don't describe it. So far, you really are. So that's pretty fucking cool. But we'll see. I we actually have a mantra in our lab. But we're aiming for 20% failure. And actually, we've had considered less than that only about 5% failure of our satellites in orbit. But so that says to me, that we're not pushing the envelope hard enough, right, because otherwise we'd be taking a bit more risk. So, yeah,
and ACCION actually has our first hardware on that rocket, so that one should be 100 to see what he's
happy with 50% until the guys on the rocket, then it's 100%,
we can have separate rates here. It's okay.
So this is not only you mentioned, the miniaturization the technical side of things. And you guys all agreed with that has the cost structure changed as well. I mean, this is plays into the risk component as well. But it used to be you had hundreds of millions going directly from governments to prime contractors, like Boeing and Lockheed and those guys, but now you you have VCs, even like angel investors going for smaller companies, they're not necessarily even building their own hardware, they may be piggybacking, how did that how did this change in the the financial strategies come about? And what does that enable?
Well, I think if you take the overall cost down to put a satellite in orbit, because it's low mass because it's miniaturize technology, then suddenly, the venture capitalist only has to put in 100 million before businesses real rather than 1 million, rather than sorry, 10 billion. Yeah. Right. So it just became, because of the cost structure coming down, it became into the realm of what VCs could do. And before it just wasn't. Mm hmm. So that changed from fundamentally know that
I think there's, there's been like a perfect collision of lots of things. So there's a perfect collision of, of, you know, technology is, has reached the point where it's feasible simulation, and some of the engineering tools, also the dissemination of knowledge around the world, the ability to, to engage in other countries, and, you know, other other talents. And then also as well mentioned, you know, the lowering of the barrier. So, it's no longer a billion dollar, you know, entry price, it's 100 million dollar entry price price. And that's, that's, you know, that that's much more feasible to enable the venture capital market to come in and, and play.
And I think another part has been the, you know, the private billionaires that did come in and take what was doing awfully serving the, the government and show that you can introduce competition. So I do think, you know, Moore's Law was happening, and all these costs could be coming down, but without a little bit of that spark that might have just stayed the status quo for a while. Mm hmm. And
although we have seen a lot of technology, enabling things, where do you think the main obstacles are, that can still be addressed by research r, amp D, you know, somebody in a lab, somebody in a garage? Where do you think we're going to see that innovation that, you know, makes a more efficient thrust nozzle or something like that? Yeah, I don't know what gives possible to improve in the technological standpoint.
Well, I mean, I think the most exciting thing to be done in spaces even thought be thought of, we have, we have no concept of what's capable, I like to where we are space in space right now is kind of go back 1015 years when, you know, to the early internet era, we've really just seen their first email, that's, that's where we're at with space right now. So I have no idea what you know, what technologies and services are going to be, you know, as a result of this revolution, but that the world is going to be a totally different place.
You mentioned the time when we were talking earlier, I think that certainly the ground the terrestrial side of things actually needs to be improved. And will you've done a lot of work in this site on the data relays, like the handling on the ground, like it's not just, you know, better satellites, but it's better space infrastructure on earth and by governments, by private companies, all this like, what, what kind of improvements can we look forward to there.
So we'll probably spend more time thinking about this part than I do. But I believe, you know, some business cases still don't quite close. Because the ground stations are still so expensive. And that connection from the downlink to the actual customers on the ground, there's a lot of room to improve their, but like I said, Well, probably knows more on that,
ground station passes was something like $300 a past. So for like, a few minutes to connect your satellite, you'd have to pay a few hundred dollars, the commercial services. And for us, we need so many passes with hundreds of satellites with hundreds of passes every day. And it's just obscene to do it that way. And so we had to build our own ground stations around the world, we have 34, four to seven meter parabolic dish antennas
to collect the data from our satellites. That was an infrastructure we had to build, now we can rent it out to other people, but other people can provide a service like that that's a good thing, you know, building those sort of infrastructure things so that other people don't have to do that would be a sensible shattering but I want to touch back on Peters point, or because I think it's really excellent that that, you know, there really is
here it's get, there's going to be a green field of opportunity coming out, and we don't know what is going to come from it from launch. What are people going to put up there? That makes sense? What, in terms of a commercial business? What are people going to use our satellite data for now that we're producing this daily image of the earth? What are people going to do, and they have better thrusters to enable different kinds of operational concepts of missions. I think this is, you know, they really are so many different things out now. It's not for the faint of heart. These are really complicated endeavors. I mean, we're both a startup all three of our companies and not we literally started building ourselves and our garage sounds like a startup, we've got VC funding sounds like a startup, right? If you can examine the systems engineering complexity in our organization, it does not look like a startup, this complexity of our satellites is high core, right. And then they would have to work together, we had to have these ground stations that we had to build and mission control systems that operate all the satellites, and we had to process millions of images every day, and automatically stitch them the servers and do all that and then build a business on top of that, you know, to sell a new data set to the world. And that is not for the faint of heart. That is a complicated systems engineering challenge. I liken it a little bit to our pilot project. So the present time undertaking these kind of startups isn't like a normal startup in that sense, it's a really complicated endeavor.
Well, I think actually you know, Tony, I wanted to ask you about this as well the you you created the technology that your company is equipping satellites with right now
at the time you may have you must have had the option or at least the the idea of well I could patent this and sell it to you know, one of these big companies but you decided to pursue it as a start up with you the head being a technical founder yeah what made you do that and would you recommend end it to other people
getting into this business so
you know when you have an idea like a new type of ion engine and and you really believe in it and and feel that there's a need for it you want to get it out into the market as fast as possible and you want it to be available to people and at the time you know there was a little bit of maybe delusion and there still is and I think you need that but because we were building our engine so differently than what had been done in the past it wasn't that clear that we could have just handed it off to you know a Lockheed Martin and said build these ion engines in this totally new way we use a silicon memes foundry for a lot of our components which is not common to space propulsion they would have had to team up with you know Intel or some other foundry to to make the chips so we believe that we could actually get these out into the market you know we had as good avichal chance of anyone is getting them out quickly and what I recommend it I mean, you have to really believe in your idea and have some you know, ACCION is really excited about the commercial new space market. But also beyond that interplanetary missions exploration. And so if you have something like that, but, you know, get you out of bed in the morning. Absolutely. If
I could just add, I think Lockheed Martin would more likely have shut it down. That's always is possible, right? So you're giving it to them. And that is doing
Yeah, it's a nice, nice little electrospray engine, you've got there be a shame if somebody were to Yeah, so I feels like all of your companies are actually in kind of a transition phase right now, going from this, this r&d and design and launch phase to building a business making that profitable and that actually something that actually makes sense that you can offer as a commercial service to people
I know, for instance, like a Peter, if you like, you told me that, you know, r&d is basically done like, you've, you've got the rocket, it's now it's a matter of stamping them out getting a million of them going because you want to get to a launch a week, which is an idea that, you know, too many people a couple of years ago, they'd be like, launch a week. That's utterly insane. But you're doing it and you're well, on your way.
Yeah, I mean, in in following on from, from wills point, as well as, you know, a space startup is like, if you talk about barriers to entry to the market. And I don't think you can think of anything that has more, I mean, generally people think miracle is tough. But, you know, from our perspective, 1% of the total rocket mass is the payload. So if you're a fraction of a percent out on anything, it's just a firework show. And, you know, we had to, we had to get up, you know, basically broker a bilateral treaty between New Zealand in America to be able to launch out of the US we had to upgrade entire internet back holds two towns and New Zealand, like, it's just, it just goes on and on and on. Like, the barriers are just just enormous. But you know, where we're at right now is, yep, we've got got through those. And, and, you know, we've, we've lived that, that, but we're, you know, you you go from milestone to funding round and milestone to funding round and, you know, on the, on the cliff of death all the time, to to a point where, you know, we have a viable product. And for us, it's just all about scale, you know, the launch site in New Zealand, you know, the reason why we have a launch site in New Zealand, it was the only place that we could achieve the launch frequency we needed to achieve. So we're, you know, building giant factories everywhere. And, and, you know, we are hiring about four or five people a week, you know, consistently and just trying to scale as fast as we can.
And speaking of extraordinary scale, will, your entire operation is a mind boggling sort of thing. But right now, you're in this transition, where you're going from the challenge of actually getting the birds in the air to doing something with all the data they're sending down. And of course, there's, we've had Earth imagery for years, and years and years, but how was your How is this network different? How is this offering different isn't just in terms of, you know, is it quantitative, qualitative, all of the above, well, so,
roughly speaking, satellite imagery the earth was taking every few months to a few years at this kind of resolution,
more like every few years, and we thought it would be useful for humanity to have more regular imagery of the earth for lots of things, lots of commercial and humanitarian reasons to have a daily snapshot of the planet, you can see changes as they happen. And humans are changing the earth all the time. And to make smart decisions, you need data on a timescale faster than you're affecting the planet. And, you know, I liken it to the Spaceship Earth concept that Buckminster Fuller promoted were 7 billion astronauts on a on a spaceship that's hurtling around the sun. And you just like, if you're on a spaceship in in a little spaceship, you have to take care of the the closed loop life support systems, or if the spacecraft goes into a spin, you need to, and you need in any of those cases, to take data on the atmosphere, or the spinning faster than the time scale, you need to fix it. Otherwise, you can't do shit about it, right. So it stands to reason that we need to have more up to date information about the planet. So what we needed for that were lots of little satellites, cameras and telescope systems, imaging the whole planet every day, we've now erected that system. It's a lot of data. So we got a few million 29 megapixel images down each day from these ground stations we erect around the planet. So now we have about 800 images for each point on the land mass of the Earth. So we have this deep stack of a data indexing change. What we're trying to do now is satellite imagery was all about sending images to individuals that would look at it and analyze it. Well, you can't do that anymore, because we're producing millions of images every day, and it broke everyone system. And so now what we're trying to do is apply machine learning it so we can, just like Google has figured out how to look for cat or a dog or whatever, in a picture, we can apply the same core machine learning technology to our imagery and go, this is a train, this is a bus, this is a ship, this is a house. This is a road in this picture. And we knew that this is Burning Man, I was just showing these guys a nice picture of Bernie manager.
And so so we and then we index what is on the earth. And I liken it to Google's sort of indexing what's on the internet and making a searchable, we're indexing what's on the earth and making it searchable. So soon, you should be able to go, hey, how many houses are they in Pakistan? Give me a plot of that versus time. What's the area of the flooding in Indonesia this year compared to last year or, you know, tell me the latitude and longitude of the trees that were felled in the Amazon between last week and this week, can you just tell me where they are, these sorts of things should be answerable, based on this query a database of all the objects on the planet, but that's a kind of ambitious vision as well. And meanwhile, we're selling that data to big enterprise directly that can consume satellite data, but the AI piece will help it make it more useful for and democratize it. More people.
Peter, you talked a little bit earlier about how you had to sort of broken agreement between New Zealand in the US as far as the red tape situation goes, I feel like space is just the limit like this has to be the most but it but you're regularly regulated to coin a phrase. So how do you how much of your company's is dedicated certain navigating that regulatory landscape I know you mentioned, Import Export restrictions you talked about just like all I mean, with launching, of course, that you are just walking through a minefield. So I'm curious how much time and resources you have to dedicate to it. But try not to depress us all. Well, I
mean, the reality is that when everybody sit down sort of 20, 3040 years ago, and drafted all the outer space treaties and all the regulations, nobody in their right mind thought that a startup company would be launching or try to launch once a week, right. And the spacecraft wouldn't be governments, they would be also commercial companies trying to do crazy stuff. So it is just horrendously broken. And, you know, a third of our company if it money and time has gone into developing the electron launch vehicle, a third of our effort and time has gone into infrastructure, building sites, and tracking stations and all that kind of stuff. And a third has gone into regulatory because that is, that is a still a still a massive barrier. You know, our goal is someone turns up with a spacecraft no different to Phoenix, we loaded on the vehicle and we launched the same day, that'd be great. The reality is that it's a six month flow by the time you get all your FCC license, the export control licenses and and if I licenses and all that it's a long flow. So we're, we're kind of really challenging that and pioneering that. I mean, a lot of people don't realize the space industry is big, and it's exciting. But America went to orbit 28 times last year as a whole country. So we aim to do that, like in a couple of months, not not as a whole year as a whole country. So, you know, the regulatory systems need a lot of message and the good The good news is, though, that they know that all the regulatory bodies know that and they want the same future that we want. And so they're investing heavily in into it and, or into finding ways around it. But nevertheless, it's kind of the unsexy bit of the is at least the rocket industry, you know, the regulatory pieces big
will I imagine you've got three letter agencies calling you up all the time asking for snapshots of this or that secret fort, you know, do you do you just have to pick up the phone and be like, Oh, it's the CI again, or hope KGB wants more photos of Washington? How do you how do you do? I mean, that just seems like a fundamental
capability of the of the system. So how do you navigate that as far as ideas of privacy and national security? Things like that? That's a great question. I mean, firstly, it's something we care about a lot, because I mean, we set that planet where we left NASA research to, to do good in the world. And so we're very, very cognizant of thinking through who we work with, and ensuring it aligns with the values of our company. Now, we do work with governments, including the US government, and we worked with an agency called the National geospatial intelligence agency, which basically provides satellite imagery data across the US government. So it could provide it to the CIA or it could provide it to the State Department or it could provide the USA and they use it for a wide variety of purposes. Of course, the US government does have its own sidelines, but a bit like Peters thing, we've launched a lot more now and a lot more than any country. Last year, we launched 146 satellites, I think that was about the same as the entire rest of the world. But together, I mean, so typically, over the last sort of history of the space age, there's been about hundred satellites launched per year on about 60 rockets per year. So one a week roughly for the whole world and 100 satellites per year and we alone as a company launched 146 satellites. So it also breaks the regulatory systems. And but yeah, we get we do get a lot of calls from different agencies, our prerogative is to get the data to as many people as possible to ensure that that can help them make smarter decisions. I'm firm believer that more people knowing about what's going on on the planet will tend to help us and if I didn't think that was the case, I'd immediately shut down the company, frankly. And so I think, and I think it's technologist responsibility to try and think very carefully about how how they bring technology about and its societal implications. And so this is not a point lost on us, and that there's geopolitical relevance to our data. But the data set has much greater value in stopping deforestation, protecting the ice caps and the coral reefs and other things and helping him farmers improve crop yields than it does for national security purposes, in my opinion,
and what do what do you hope your your tech will be used for? I mean, you've got, you've got this, you've got this extraordinary new type of thruster and it could enable so many so many, like new applications, but it's up to ultimately it's up to the people making the satellites or whatever but what do you think it's a go for it?
Well, quickly, on the regulation side, we have the mostly export control regulations that are a pain for us were classified as a munition. So you know, same as a ballistic or like launch vehicle. But one of our thruster chips provides about the amount of threats that could hold a mosquito up. And so it's like a very antiquated set of regulations from the Cold War. But, and then as far as ACCION and our applications, and and what I hope it's used for I'm, you know, really excited about the commercial new space sector, probably mostly to connect everyone on the globe. I'm excited to bring everyone online and can't wait until everybody around the world has access to, you know, doctors and schools and banks and things like that. And then beyond that, I feel like to start an ion engine company, you have to be a little out there. So we're, you know, mostly excited about exploring the solar system and beyond and scaling our technology up to be able to to do that.
Well, I hope so, too. And with that, we are out of time. Thank you very much all for joining us and for your extraordinary contributions to space.