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Indian space-tech startup prepares to launch 24 satellites; aims to send first one by Nov

PB Jayakumar     June 6, 2020

KEY HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Bangalore based Pixxel to launch first small satellite by November-December
  • Plans to launch a constellation of 24 satellites for 24X7 imaging of earth
  • Pixxel was started in May 2018 by BITS Pilani graduates, Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal
  • GrowX Ventures and prominent angel investors have invested in Pixxel
  • Satellite imaging market to grow at 11.3% CAGR to US$4.7 billion by 2025

While Elon Musk's SpaceX made history last week by sending two astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the International Space Station in a privately funded spacecraft, a commercial space-tech start-up in India is putting the final touches to its own ambitious plans. Bengaluru-based Pixxel is gearing up to launch its first satellite by the end of the year.

The small satellite will go in a Russian launch vehicle and will focus on high clarity satellite imagery. It would be helpful for governments and private organisations in collecting AI-powered analytical data related to agriculture, climate, spread of crop pests and diseases, defence monitoring, and mining in order to find illegal operations, monitor oil and gas pipelines, natural disasters, forest fire etc, said Awais Ahmed, founder and CEO of Pixxel.

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"We were planning to launch it from Russia on a Soyuz rocket next month, but have pushed the launch to November due to coronavirus. We are planning the second satellite launch by July 2021 and to have a constellation of 24 satellites, to be launched in a gap of 3-6 months", he said.

He said Pixxel, one among the first private ventures in the business of satellites, has tied up with an Italian service provider 'Leaf Space', for ground station services to collect and analyse data from the satellite. The Bangalore-based firm has already entered into tie-ups with a few private organisations like Skymet and Maxar to use data based on user fees. Advantage of such refrigerator sized micro satellites is they can monitor the earth with focussed precision and costs only one-tenth of  multi-purpose big satellites launched by government agencies like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

The space tech market globally is worth around $350 billion and the global commercial satellite imaging market size is expected to reach $4.7 billion by 2025, rising at a market growth of 11.3 per cent compounded annual growth rate (CAGR), according to analysts. Increasing dependence on location-based services (LBS) is expected to drive the growth.

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Astrome, another Bangalore based space-tech start up which has plans to launch a constellation of 198 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites and Mumbai-based space-tech startup Kawa Space are among the few Indian companies in this space. The leading global companies in this space include Spaceflight Industries, Galileo, ImageSat International, Maxar Technologies, Planet Labs, UrtheCast Corporation, Airbus SE, Vricon, Trimble, Leonardo, Thales, L3Harris Technologies etc.

India has around 300 private companies operating in the space technology area and majority of them are suppliers to the ISRO ecosystem. 

Pixxel, founded by BITS Pilani graduates Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal in May 2018, has funding from private equity company GrowX Ventures and from some prominent angel investors. The company is the only startup from Asia to be selected for the first batch of 10 startups in Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator in Los Angeles, aimed to give young entrepreneurs test and validate their space innovations  by the world's top space scientists.

Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal were part of the founding team of next generation mobility concept Hyperloop India and in 2017, had presented a working Hyperloop pod prototype to Elon Musk at the SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles. Issues like climate change, water shortage and environmental impact attracted the young engineers to focus on satellite imaging as a business opportunity.

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