Peter Platzer (all photos by Asa Mathat)
Platzer displays a small satellite.
Background: David Kirkpatrick and Peter Platzer
Chief Executive Officer, NanoSatisfi, Inc.
Peter Platzer, CEO of NanoSatisfi, wants the public to revise how it thinks about satellites. Platzer explains that the satellites people normally think of—big, bulky, exorbitantly expensive, and reserved for the military and government—are in actuality decades outdated. He equates the most modern satellite being flown by the U.S. military today to a “Pentium 2 running Windows 98,” using technology that’s far from cutting edge. With successful prototypes for smaller, cheaper, more connected satellites, NanoSatisfi imagines “The Internet of the Universe” and a reality that allows even the average person to be in control of a satellite. Read the full transcript below.
Kirkpatrick: Peter Platzer, CEO of NanoSatisfi, is going to talk about something that he really hasn’t talked about much anywhere before—nano-satellites or CubeSats, as they’re called, taking some of this whole sensing capability into a whole new place: outer space. So, Peter, please take it away.
Platzer: Thanks, David. So I want to talk a little bit about the high-ground space. We talked a lot about sensors on earth, but let’s put it to the high ground, as the military would call it. And for that, I’d like to take you on a little journey, and I ask you to close your eyes and picture a satellite. Ask yourself, how big is it? What does it cost? How long did it take to build it? And then maybe ask yourself, how many do we launch per year? Who has access to them and can use them? And then what kind of technology do we use on that. Now, if you are even like most people—which I know you’re not¾but maybe still what you saw was something like this, maybe higher resolution. And what it is is it’s a satellite that is very large, like a car or bus. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe even billions. It took many years to build, sometimes decades. When you think about how many there are, actually very few people are even surprised when we say that there are 100 that we launch every single year. People who get access to it are military, government, for TV we use it a little bit. And the one thing that you might have gotten wrong is what kind of technology it uses. Because some of you might have thought that space is cutting-edge technology, and the truth is that this is the most modern weather satellite that the United States government is flying, and it’s basically equivalent to a Pentium II running Windows 98. Anyone running Windows 98? Okay.
What I’m here to tell you is that that actually is not true. What I would have wanted you to think about as a satellite is this. This is a satellite. So what you see up there is actually sitting in our office right now, we have our first ones, and how big is it? Like this. If it grows up, it’s as big as a bottle of wine. It costs a few hundred thousand dollars. There are three satellites that are currently being built and to be launched through Kickstarter campaigns. Ours are going up on August 5th. How long does it take? A few months. I feel we are slow. We finished our Kickstarter campaign in the end of the summer and we now have two satellites. The next one are going to be much faster; it’s going to be a couple of weeks. How many do we want to launch? Hundreds. And I mean literally hundreds. Who gets access and to use them? Everyone. You want to control the satellite? You go onto my Web page, you sign up, you can control the satellite. Companies, individual governments, military—everyone is using them. Military has great programs for those CubeSats.
And the one thing that you would have gotten right again is that this actually is cutting-edge technology. This is like an iPhone 5 that’s using literally the most modern things that are out there. And I think what is sad—and we saw this in the former panel—is that if I had asked you 20 years ago, picture a satellite, you’d have come up with the same answer. And I think Dave said it really well in the panel beforehand¾what has happened on earth is that if I’d asked 20 years ago to picture a computer, you would have pictured this. This is like the Cray that we used when I was at CERN. And if I would have asked you what are the features, you would say, it’s very costly, it’s very large, it costs a lot of money, military and government uses it. But if I ask you today to close your eyes and picture a computer, you probably would have pictured an iPad or an iPhone, because it just costs like a few hundred dollars, everyone can use it, hundreds of millions of those devices are out there. And the very same thing is happening in space. There are a few key technologies that are happening there that do similar things as we did with computers, where bringing down the price point five orders of magnitude has created an Internet with global connectivity, computation power is ubiquitously available to everyone 24-7, and we actually get this kind of upgrade cycle.
So there are three enabling forces that I would like to mention for why this is happening now in space, and they are very similar to what drove the whole thing on the computer side. Number one, you have standards. Mainframe to PC suddenly was the standard—same thing: CubeSats and P-POD is the standard. There have been more satellites launched using that standard than anything else. There are more teams across the world working on this standard than on anything else with regards to satellite. The same thing is Moore’s Law: you have massive amounts of economies of scale happening on earth that allows me to put better and better sensors literally every couple months into my satellites. I upgraded my camera already three times. Last but not least, there are budget constraints. Stopping the shuttle program basically created SpaceX, and sequestration is further hampering NASA, and we just signed an agreement with NASA to help them with education and outreach, which basically as of now is blocked; NASA is not allowed to do any of that anymore.
Now, what do you do, what can you get when you have this kind of ubiquitous high ground sensors data network? And what can you do when you actually combine that with sensors on earth? I don’t have enough time to go into all the ideas, so I want to just give you like a couple of those things that can happen. So the first one, let’s think of a problem that we haven’t solved for like a few hundred thousand years, and that is earthquake prediction, or just an early warning system. But if you have 24-7 real HD streaming from space, you can actually combine large-scale observation of animal behavior. You can do, in remote areas, low-frequency radio connectivity that you can measure those transmissions. And you can combine it with human behavior, through our cell phones. How much do we move? How often do we call in sick? What is our general state?How many people call in sick? All of this we’ve started to pick up, but we’re missing the high ground. With this one, we can do that.
Kirkpatrick: Peter, quickly, the point being that you believe that if you correlate all that data and observe it for a long enough period, you could begin to start predicting when an earthquake happens?
Platzer: Yes. Exactly.
Kirkpatrick: But only if you have the space element included.
Platzer: Exactly. ou need the high ground, as the military calls it, to have that overview.
Kirkpatrick: Keep going.
Platzer: Yeah. So another one is food supply, right? So there’s something that’s called position agriculture, where if you have the overview in remote areas to monitor large areas, and have sensors that you have locally, but you can easily connect them together, you can actually have massive improvement in food supply, right? If you look at the U.S., the value added of a U.S. agricultural worker is 100 times of an Indian. And that has to do with position agriculture and access to data.
Last but not least, let’s think about entertainment. Let’s be an astronaut. When I give you a 3D, head-mounted display—they’re coming out—and then I give you real-time streaming of a camera in space, you’re sitting inside a satellite. So when you see this, you see it in 3D and you can steer which way it goes.
Kirkpatrick: Wow. So—is that it?
Kirkpatrick: Oh, good. So—
Platzer: If that is not enough, I have nothing else.
Kirkpatrick: No, no, it’s pretty good. So just talk a little bit more about what some of the sensors are that may by up there in space. Obviously cameras, right?
Platzer: Yeah, so cameras is really one of them.
Kirkpatrick: But what are some of the others?
Platzer: You have magnetic sensors, proton and electron sensors. So solar storms are actually a hundreds of millions of dollars of damage problem. NOAA predicted that if a solar storm that we had in the late nineteenth century hit the US today, we’d have a trillion dollar damages on earth in equipment. And if you don’t have a sensor network which does magnetic fields, electrons, and protons from the sun, you don’t have enough early warning and you have this damage.
Kirkpatrick: Do we have that today up there now?
Platzer: No, we don’t.
Kirkpatrick: We don’t have it all? So somebody could decide to use your product for that.
Kirkpatrick: You’re not going to do it yourself, but someone might decide to rent capacity from you and put it in there, right?
Platzer: To buy the data—yeah.
Kirkpatrick: So the idea is that these are going to be accessible to be rented for any kind of act, right? That’s the basic concept?
Platzer: Yes. And we have released an SDK for our satellite, so people can build applications based on this technology that is in space.
Kirkpatrick: And so again, just to reiterate, because I think it is really worth underscoring, because the satellites themselves are getting so cheap and you’re going to have capabilities to launch large numbers of them at once, in like one package that then disperses out—you didn’t actually tell us that, but you told me that before—
Platzer: Yeah. That’s secret.
Kirkpatrick: You can keep the technology in space much more up-to-date—
Kirkpatrick: In the same way that it’s up-to-date in our pockets, but we have Windows 98 in space.
Kirkpatrick: And then it’s a fundamental sea change in the nature of the technology we’re going to have in space, and then combined with all these sensors on earth, it just adds to the truly revolutionary quality of this Internet of Everything, right?
Platzer: Yes. I mean, what you guys talked in the panel before, of taking the sensors from an iPhone and putting it in the sugar cube, that is exactly happening. In July, I had a camera of VGA standard. Three months later I replaced it with four times the resolution, four months later I replaced it with four times the resolution, six months later eight times the resolution when I replaced it. Because there is like 100 million iPhones built out there with cameras, magnetometers, accelerometers, and I just put them into a spacecraft.
Kirkpatrick: Well, thanks so much. One of the reasons we wanted to have Peter was it really underscores the everything piece of this case, when you start thinking about the implications of the satellites entering into this ecosystem of sensing and data production and intelligence. So thank you so much.
Platzer: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.