Planetary Resources, a satellite company on a mission to mine asteroids for natural resources, has raised $21.1 million in Series A funding from a bevy of high-profile individuals and venture capital investors.
In building the capability to identify the most “commercially viable near-Earth water-rich asteroids,” the startup has developed technologies relevant for Earth observation and a range of different industries, which it is commercializing in tandem with its main mission.
Agriculture is one of the industries Planetary Resources is focusing on, and this week the startup announced a partnership with multinational agribusiness Bayer’s Digital Farming department.
“Agriculture is a great place to start; it’s the largest endeavor on the planet,” said Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources.
“As audacious and big our mission is, we always knew we wouldn’t go straight to it and that we’d likely develop other businesses and deploy technology along the way,” he said. “We came to ag over the past year or so as we prepared to launch our most recent satellites into space with the thermo-graphic imagery sensors that we’d developed to detect water on asteroids. Not only is this very useful for global agriculture, but North American agribusinesses seemed to be adopting more and more digital technologies now.”
This partnership, which involves developing applications and products using Planetary Resources’ satellite imagery, is the latest for Bayer Digital Farming. The division, which launched two years ago, has been quietly building up its arsenal under Liam Condon, head of Bayer CropScience, and Tobias Menne, head of Digital Farming. Last year Bayer acquired Canadian satellite imagery analysis company Zoner, and earlier this year proPlant, a health diagnosis software company. It’s also understood that Monsanto’s digital ag division — Climate Corp — was a big factor in Bayer’s recent bid for the US agribusiness.
And with the hire of Andree-Georg Girg as head of commercialization for digital farming earlier this year, it looks like the company is ready to bring more products to the market.
While the exact details of the partnership were not disclosed, it is understood Bayer will be Planetary Resources’ client and will pay for its data and service. It intends to combine the insights generated by Planetary Resources data with physical data collection products and in-house agronomic modeling to provide “specific, granular and robust field-specific recommendations to farmers,” Tobias Menne, head of Digital Farming at Bayer, told AgFunderNews.
So what does Planetary Resources bring to the table that other satellite imagery companies, more focused on ag, don’t?
Thermal and hyperspectral imagery, Bayer’s Menne told AgFunderNews. Planetary Resources’ Ceres constellation will carry one of the first commercial hyperspectral sensors in space, which will measure 40 color bands in the visible to near-infrared spectrum, and its next spacecraft includes the first-ever commercial a midwave-infrared sensor offering thermographic mapping and night-imaging, useful for soil moisture and crop scouting applications, according to the company.
Other satellite imagery providers focus on multispectral images in the red-green-blue, red-edge, and near-infrared spectral regions. Hyperspectral sensors, by comparison, look at objects through an electromagnetic spectrum.
Lewicki says there are three approaches to imaging the planet.
- High resolution, multispectral images that offer some scientific measurement around crop health based on biomass levels.
- Frequent images that capture data daily to monitor any changes, but “possibly at a lower resolution.”
- Hyperspectral imagery which can “quite literally take the temperature of the surface of the Earth, and measure things you cannot see” like wetness, dryness.
“Hyperspectral imagery goes beyond a picture, so things that are not normally visible to the human eye start to become visible,” he said. “We are even starting to do some sensing at night which means round the clock measurements.”
Hyperspectral sensors can also detect the type of crop or weed growing as objects leave unique fingerprints or “spectral signatures” in the electromagnetic spectrum. This is also used to detect other materials such as oil; hyperspectral imaging was originally developed for mining and geology.
While Planetary Resources will focus on soil moisture and temperature readings in the short term, Lewicki sees the potential to measure more advanced issues such as pest stress later on.
Planetary Resources is not the only agtech startup to use hyperspectral sensing; just last week Gamaya closed a funding round for its drone-based sensing technology and analytics platform.
Until now, hyperspectral sensors have been out of reach for small, independent companies, mostly due to cost, and they’ve also been too large for many applications, sources tell AgFunderNews.
But both Planetary Resources and Gamaya have built their own hyperspectral sensors, taking advantage of the falling costs associated with the building blocks of sensors. Planetary Resources has done so building on its experience working for NASA to identify harmful algae blooms from space.
“In the same way that the cost of building satellites fell from billions of dollars to around $1 million each, the costs associated with building sensors are now commensurately affordable,” said Lewicki.
Investors in the round include “famous tech titans” that were seed investors and were joined in this round by more general tech investors and global strategic corporate players.
The funding was led by Bryan Johnson and the OS Fund. He was joined by Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Idea Bulb Ventures, a US/China venture capital firm, Chinese internet company Tencent, resource sustainability focused VC Vast Ventures, hardware VC fund Grishin Robotics, New York VC Conversion Capital, and angel investment groups The Seraph Group, Space Angels Network, and Angel.co.
Planetary Resources’ full constellation will not be operational and commercial until late 2018, but it already has a few satellites in orbit and has launched a series of field trials and pilot programs. It is launching two micro satellites later this year with Space X, with another launch scheduled for early spring next year.
When the constellation is fully operational, the company anticipates that it will be able to provide the ag industry weekly insights into their fields. It’s currently focusing on developing two specific products in ag: a soil moisture detector, and thermal measurements of the crop canopy.
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