Startup to launch ultra high-resolution satellites, sparking privacy concerns

A new generation of high-resolution satellites will be able to recognize your car and likely distinguish between people, providing imagery at 10 centimeters per pixel. However, very low-flying cameras are raising new privacy concerns.

The US startup Albedo wants to collect and provide the highest resolution optical and thermal imagery from the sky, with just ten square centimeters of ground per pixel for optical imagery and two meters per pixel for thermal.

This resolution would provide imagery of 100 pixels per square meter or about nine pixels per square foot on the ground.

In 2023, the company finalized the satellite design and started building. This year, the startup raised additional funding and plans to launch the first and second 10 cm commercial satellite in 2025, the roadmap reveals.

“We build, and we’ll operate satellites that fly very low in what’s called Very Low Earth Orbit or VLEO. So, it’s about twice as close to the Earth as normal LEO or Low Earth Orbit. And it’s a part of space that hasn’t been commercialized yet,” Topher Haddad, cofounder and CEO at Albedo, told Payload.

Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) is a range of orbital altitudes of up to 400 km, most commonly 250-350 km.

Once launched, Albedo plans to provide imagery-as-a-service for agriculture, insurance, energy, mapping, utilities, and defense. Imagery tasking will be exclusive to Albedo Reserve customers at first.

Haddad noted that only a few research missions have flown so low, and Albedo will be the first to commercialize VLEO at scale, “ultimately creating a new platform with big advantages for Earth observation.”

“As you can imagine, if you take a camera and put it much closer to the ground, the pictures from that camera will be much higher resolution,” he said and noted that today, only planes or drones can achieve such a resolution.

Albedo satellites are expected to cover the whole surface of the Earth, over both rural and metro areas, “imaging spots much more frequently and on demand.” Albedo foresees a constellation of 24 spacecraft revisiting the same point on Earth five times a day.

Vehicles will be recognized

While the satellite won’t tell if you’re smiling or not, it will be able to recognize your car. One of the advantages of the next-gen satellite, according to Haddad, is the ability to identify much smaller objects. 10x10 cm resolution contains a hundred times more information than 1x1 meter resolution.

With “one meter-resolution pixel, you have a single pixel on a car. So, there’s no way you could identify that it’s an automobile. But with 10 centimeters, you have a hundred pixels on that car. And so, you have a much more resolute aspect. We’re nine times better in terms of nine times more pixels than today’s state-of-the-art commercially, which is 30 centimeters,” Haddad said.

He also noted that only three satellites in orbit today may capture 30x30 cm resolution, and 50x50 cm is more widely available.

The startup hopes to achieve a breakthrough by bringing telescopes closer to Earth, as “the cost of satellite scales exponentially with diameter or aperture of the telescope.” Small cameras would dramatically reduce costs and make access to such imagery more affordable.

“If you cut that distance in half, you can shrink that other knob, the diameter of the telescope, substantially,” Haddad explained.

In December last year, Albedo announced that it had been awarded a 2.5-year contract from the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) Commercial Systems Program Office (CSPO).

Albedo will collaborate closely with NRO to provide both near and long-term EO remote sensing capabilities via modeling, simulation, and data evaluation,” the company said in a press release.

“Our satellites are designed to be highly taskable and are well suited for ad-hoc tasking requests. Our future rapid revisit, on-demand tasking, and tailored collection areas will support many intelligence applications,” added Haddad.

On January 23rd, 2024, Albedo announced a $35 million Series A-1 financing round led by Standard Investments, bringing the company’s total funding to $97 million. The financing will be used to launch the first operational satellite and accelerate constellation deployment.

Big Brother fears

Privacy protection advocates fear that people could also be recognized using the next-gen technology, as the new satellites may be capable of zooming in on individuals, and taking close-up photos of a property.

“This is a giant camera in the sky for any government to use at any time without our knowledge,” Jennifer Lynch, general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the New York Times (NYT). “We should definitely be worried.”

She urged national regulatory authorities to address this issue back in 2019. A former CIA official, Linda Zall, confirmed to the NYT that it’s a big deal, as things people tried to hide in their backyards could become clearly visible.

The Trump administration took steps to relax civil satellite regulations in 2018, enabling imaging objects as small as 10 centimeters.

“We’re acutely aware of the privacy implications,” Haddad told NYT and assured readers that the technology won’t be able to identify people.

Haddad and another cofounder, AyJay Lasater, both come from the defense company Lockheed Martin. The company has Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment firm founded by Bill Gates, among the investors.

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