For decades, satellites have been a valuable resource for understanding events on Earth in slow motion, from assessing damage from extreme weather, to forecasting crop outputs, to predicting economic activity from the number of ships docked in a port. At Loft, the company believes that satellites can do far more.
Satellites should be able to provide answers and insights – not just raw data – in real time. Realizing this future requires us to shorten the time it takes to derive value from satellite data. Specifically, it means having the ability to parse, process, and analyze raw data onboard the satellite, at the moment of collection. This requires that we think of satellites as more than just data collection platforms. They also need to be edge compute nodes, where software applications (apps) can run as easily as they do in a data center.
Over the past two years, Loft has quietly built the product stack that enables any developer to deploy software apps to Loft satellites, or what the firm calls virtual missions. The company has now announced YAM-6, the first, virtual mission-enabled satellite. Launching on SpaceX‘s upcoming Transporter-10 mission, YAM-6 will abstract away the hardware by providing access to Loft-owned sensors and compute nodes that support AI. This is a revolutionary shift in the space industry: a satellite no longer has to be owned.
A virtual mission is the deployment of a customer-developed software app onto Loft’s space infrastructure to leverage onboard resources, such as imagers and compute. YAM-6’s payloads include a hyperspectral imager, an RGB imager, a software-defined radio (SDR), and real-time connectivity via an inter-satellite link (ISL). They’re paired with a powerful robust set of CPU and GPU compute options and are AI-ready, with GPU acceleration for heavier AI workloads, such as image processing or change detection.
While many space companies are constrained to the traditional process of designing, building, integrating, testing, launching, and operating a satellite, Loft manages this challenging, capital-intensive process so the customer can directly access the data they need. Just as a developer can deploy their software to a cloud server, we’re providing the tools for customers to do the same with our satellites.
Virtual missions represent Loft’s goal to make space simple — by providing a SDK (Software Development Kit) and environment for testing, the company creates a CI/CD (Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment) pipeline for space. This is all supported by our culture of SatDevOps. Here’s how virtual missions operate…
- Loft provides the customer with the SDK, which includes a clearly defined framework, documentation, and APIs.
- Our customer develops their software app, according to their business objectives.
- The software app is deployed in the development environment to test and identify bugs to mitigate risk, before deployment into a satellite).
- The software app is then deployed to the firm’s infrastructure in space using Cockpit, our mission-agnostic, operations software. By abstracting away hardware interactions, Loft can provide rapid access and a simple interface for any application.
Partner Microsoft, provides the cloud development environment and on-orbit application framework that makes this possible on YAM-6. Any developer using Microsoft’s Azure Orbital space edge can easily deploy software apps to a Loft satellite with the Loft-specific satellite APIs that give access to our onboard sensors and compute platforms.
Virtual missions provide the opportunity to radically shorten time to orbit. Customers can deploy their own software apps to Loft’s infrastructure to analyze data as it is being collected, enabling all kinds of use cases like tip-and-cue, response and sensor fusion. Software apps that require compute power, such as AI and Machine Learning (ML), enable the company to use the unique vantage point of space in a variety of important ways.
YAM-6 will deploy a number of virtual missions from customers, directly after launch. One of the most exciting parts of this industry shift is that the company doesn’t exactly know what customers will come up with. This is just the beginning of an ecosystem of developers and applications that run on Loft’s space infrastructure.
Article authored by Bethany Pulcini-Baldwin, Missions Product Lead, Loft Orbital