There’s been much ado about getting internet to the world’s disaffected and disconnected populations. Large swathes of rural and underdeveloped areas of Asia, Africa and somewhat in Latin America have garnered the attention of Silicon Valley’s biggest superpowers Google and Facebook.
But their solutions might be virtual pies in the sky, according to one Israeli startup hoping to create the world’s first global communications network based entirely on nanosatellites.
Breaking out of stealth, SkyFi announced on Thursday that it raised $3 million from Jerusalem Venture Partners and the Liberty Israel Venture Fund ahead of a presentation at the Microsoft Think Next event in Tel Aviv. The founding team has experience from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), RaySat Broadcasting and the Gilat Satellite Network. Their satellite network (constellation) will provide up to one gigabyte of data per second anywhere in the world. Ahead of the event, Geektime got a sneak peek at their technology.
“We call them satellite seeds because they grow in space,” SkyFi Co-Founder and CEO Raz Itzhaki Tamir told Geektime. “Instead of tens of millions of dollars, it’ll be 10 to 100 times cheaper. We are able to enjoy both worlds. Launch and build up is very cost effective while the surface is a lot like a much larger satellite.”
Nanosats have been all the rage in Houston the last few years and a number of startups are getting the green they need to launch into the great beyond. Most people in Silicon Valley would be more familiar with Skybox Imaging or Planet Labs. But they and several smaller outfits are focused on different aspects of the satellite imaging industry. Communications is a totally different matter. This is where SkyFi is breaking new extraterrestrial ground. SkyFi (formally NSLComm) has scored 1st prize from NASA’s New Space Competition and from The Pitch 2015.
Tamir says, “We can provide other services, create WiFi bubbles in Africa, or provide service to planes. We can provide many applications to many places at the same time. This is a breakthrough and disruptive technology in a way, because no one can afford this kind of communication today.”
SkyFi’s nanosats aren’t just small, they’re adjustable. Unlike the larger geostationary communications satellites deployed in the 36,000-40,000 km range above the earth, SkyFi can alter the trajectory of its signals. The larger satellites are deployed with certain areas in mind, so the dishes cannot be adjusted over their commonly fifteen-year lifetimes even if peak demand shifts to different areas (imagine deploying a satellite in 1996 for California but not being able to keep up with demand for 2011 San Francisco). What’s more, they can provide coverage in areas that conventional satellites cannot.
“Since the earth has curviture, if you go up over the poles the satellite gets lower and lower over the horizon. So it doesn’t work with geostationary satellites,” Tamir added. They claim they can offer mobile data backhauling for U.S. carriers, cloud storage backhauling in Japan and communication by the North Pole for planes, hinting at their business plan. Their satellites can last 7-10 years and would cost merely $300,000 apiece to deploy. However, even that price likely goes down when it negotiates deals to launch 60 nanosats over the next few years, 16 at a time. “We’re able to make satellites very cost effective, yet affordable and have the performance of much larger satellites. For example nanosats, we can transmit 500 times more than a regular nanosat.”
Testing a communications nanosatellite
The satellite has an expendable reflector (the dish) and a flexosub (that catches signslas from and bounces them back to the reflector) in the middle of the machine that can alter its shape. That shape adjustment matches a country’s borders or some designated area of coverage. It would take 60 nanosats to cover the entire planet, so the SkyFi team is working toward an initial generation of four batch launches with one or more private space faring cargo companies. In one example SkyFi showed reporters at one of their research offices, they were able to approximate Israel’s borders off their nanosatellite. The SkyFi team says that current technology can provide up to two megabytes per second, but they can go 500 times that speed.
SkyFi would deploy in LEO, or low-earth orbit, about 1,000 km off the ground. The LEO satellite constellation market is “three or four times larger than geocentric,” according to Tamir, with at least 6,000 LEOs in orbit in 10 years.
Testing these babies is an interesting, engineering-laden process that demonstrates how important mathematical education really should have been in my life. Out in Rosh HaAyin, the team is working with partners to work with flawed satellite signals. Tamir shows off a model of a more classic-looking satellite that they use to test their flexible signal technology with a room full of camera crewmen huddling together underneath its massive canopy.
“When you have an antenna that expands, it’s never as accurate as a rigid antenna. So when it opens it has errors on it. What we did here is we created an imperfect antenna intentionally … that simulates the errors we get when we deploy a real antenna,” he said.
“What we did was mount 24 engines behind the subreflector so now it can change its shape which allows us to cortrect for the errors, regaining the gain (antennas are measured by gain), but also we can draw a different footprint on earth just by changing the shape of the subreflector.”
SkyFi vs. Google Loon and Facebook Drones
As Tamir hinted earlier, one possible application is providing so-called WiFi Bubbles over Africa and presumably over other under-connected regions. By their own admission, SkyFi says they can get basic coverage to these areas with 60 satellites but would look to enlarge that network to improve coverage. When asked by Geektime what he thought of Google’s Loon project or Facebook’s plan to deploy drones, Tamir told Geektime it was ambitious but ultimately not enough.
“So if we talk drones or balloons, they are limited. Everything has its own benefits and cons. They are within the area boundaries of countries so you need permission to fly over those countries at those altitudes, but space belongs to everyone. Two, you suffer from the jetstreams, so if you just fly balloons without propulsion then they won’t stay where they want them to. Also the altitude you can fly drones is 10 to 40 kilometers max. We’re looking at thousands of kilometers. You would need many more drones to cover the entire planet.”
CFO Elyashiv Miller chimed in on the conversation and added, “For a specific time or a specific place it will be very helpful, like the Olympic games in the summer it will be very helpful,” told Geektime, but not over the long term or intercontinentally.
While Tamir admits SkyFi has a narrower margin of error for its hardware compared to balloons and drones to keep their nanosats in orbit for 7-10 years, he argues they are more efficient and still a simpler solution to today’s geocentric monsters.
“We can fix while in space and this fixing capability gives you both the ability to maintain the efficiency of the antenna and to adjust the footprint to places that other satellites do not have access to you.”
Tamir falls back on his years of experience at IAI and the team’s collective expertise to express confidence in one thing: “We think the only way to effectively connect people all over the world is through satellites.”
SkyFi was co-founded by CEO Raz Itzhaki Tamir, COO Daniel Rockberger and CTO Danny Spirtus. They have five employees in Tel Aviv with research done in Rosh HaAyin and other Israeli cities.