Dozens of established players and newer entrants compete to bring the most advanced remote sensing data to customers. These companies may use hyperspectral, thermal, radar or optical instruments, but so far none have used light detection and ranging (lidar), a technology best known for its use in self-driving cars. Nuview, a geospatial technology company that emerged from stealth today, wants to change that.
The company aims to build out a constellation of 20 commercial satellites equipped with its own lidar system. The “end game,” as Nuview founder and CEO Clint Graumann put it, is to map the entire land surface of the Earth with lidar — on a yearly basis.
It’s an ambitious plan, but one that could potentially generate huge revenue if the company manages to pull it off.
There are many good reasons why no commercial company has succeeded in deploying lidar in space on a large scale. NASA has shipped a handful of science payloads that use lidar, but they are very large systems that require a lot of power. When lidar is used for mapping here on Earth, it is done with unscalable and expensive platforms such as airplanes and drones. Nor is it as simple as porting lidar systems from self-driving cars to satellites; the former systems are usually short-range, with very low power requirements. Compared to what Nuview is building, it’s “apples and oranges,” Graumann said.
But there have been a number of changes over the past five years that make Nuview’s ambitious plan technically feasible. Some parts of the lidar system are finally commercially available after being the exclusive purview of the US Department of Defense, for example. Nuview has also managed to reduce the size and weight of its system compared to other systems that have gone to space, he said. But in perhaps the most important breakthrough, Graumann said the company’s system will be able to scan large areas at once.
“That’s what really unlocks the big revenue potential and the potential to run big projects on a national scale,” he said.
The space industry has also changed: launch costs have come down thanks to innovations from SpaceX and other launch providers. Commercial small satellites are also now capable of generating enough power to run a lidar system, Graumann said, adding that all of the satellite bus manufacturers Nuview is currently in talks with can all produce platforms powerful enough for the lidar payload.
“That just wasn’t commercially viable or even viable four or five years ago unless you had a massive system,” he said.
Graumann said the idea for the company “hit [him] like a bolt of lightning.” Graumann, an Earth observation (EO) industry veteran who most recently advised EO companies and startups with his company TerraMetric, said he heard repeatedly from clients who wanted to combine their dataset with lidar data.
The company has kept a low profile ever since. The Orlando, Florida-based startup closed its first round of funding last year and is in the middle of closing a second round. Nuview does not disclose how much capital the company has raised to date, nor its investors, but Florida Funders, MaC Venture Capital, Broom Ventures and Industrious Ventures all list Nuview among their investments on their respective websites. The company also scored a government contract for an undisclosed amount.
The company will begin launching a “proof of concept” satellite called “Mr. Spoc,” though they haven’t yet reserved a firm launch spot. Once they demonstrate their technology, they’ll try to roll out the commercial constellation in tranches of five. launch, spaced 18 months apart until the company reaches a constellation of 20.
Nuview has secured more than $1 billion in early adopter deals — revenue that depends on the company meeting specifications. These early adopters get access to the data the Mr. Spoc spacecraft collect and can provide feedback about future satellites. To date, the company has a team of 21 full-time and contract employees and is building a new facility with optics, integration and laser labs in Orlando.
So far, Graumann expects the company’s largest market to be national mapping for civil agencies around the world. Nuview has also seen interest from existing space-based sensing customers looking to merge their data with lidar – essentially making their product even more robust by combining it with lidar data.
“When you look at optical data, as you see on Google Earth, it’s beautiful and it’s meant to see things visually. LIDAR data is billions of individual data points,” said Graumann. “When you think about the world of AI and machine learning, there is nothing more valuable than more data points to train and work with. […] The satellite data out there today is made for humans. Lidar data is made for machines.”