TAMPA, Fla .– A UK company that equips spy planes and drones to track satellite phones has raised capital to launch a handful of tiny surveillance spacecraft to listen for signals from covertly operating ships.
Horizon Space Technologies, a recently establishedsubsidiary of Berkshire, Based in England, Horizon Technologies is the prime contractor for the UK government’s cubesat signal intelligence program called IOD-3 Amber.
Amber IOD-3, its first satellite, is part of the In-Orbit Demonstration Program (IOD) run by the government non-profit Satellite Applications Catapult.
With funding from the UK government’s innovation agency, the cubesat Amber IOD-3 is being built by AAC Clyde Space to provide data to the country’s National Maritime Information Center (NMIC). L3Harris Technologies supports the development of the payload.
The satellite is expected to be launched aboard a SpaceX Cargo Dragon mission in August to deployment from the International Space Station shortly after arrival. Houston-based NanoRacks organized the deployment of the cubesat from the ISS.
No more incoming satellites
Horizon Technologies CEO John Beckner said News the company has secured funding to launch two more Amber satellites next year, amid plans for an initial constellation of six satellites.
Beckner declined to discuss the size of Horizon’s Series A funding round, led by private equity firm Maven Capital Partners. An industry source said it was “millions of single digits”.
Virgin Money, the financial services company of Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, entered the round through his lender Clydesdale Bank. Virgin Orbit, Branson’s air launch startup, has invested in other space companies in exchange for launch deals.
The UK government aims to use Horizon data to counter activities ranging from illegal fishing to human trafficking in its coastal waters.
“The Amber program to date has been a great example of a successful public / private partnership,” Beckner said.
“We are delighted to have received so much support from the UK government, and that includes the [innovation accelerator] Catapult, Department of International Trade (DIT) and Defense and Security Organization (DSO). Their help has been simply invaluable. “
Follow-up of non-follow-up
All passenger ships and most ocean-going vessels over a certain tonnage are required by law to be fitted with Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) transponders, allowing them to be tracked by coast stations and satellites equipped with AIS receivers. However, vessels can deactivate AIS transponders to avoid detection.
Horizon’s satellites will supplement AIS data by picking up weak electronic signals from navigation radars and satellite phones, allowing vessels to be tracked even if they turn AIS off.
The company will buy AIS data from third parties that will feed its ground station. Becker said his satellites will have AIS receivers to double check the measurements, but he does not plan to sell the service.
The radio frequency mapping (RFM) network market has grown in recent years, with venture capitalists helping to increase the number of players and satellites in orbit.
US-based HawkEye 360 currently provides RFM services with six satellites in orbit, saying in April it had raised an additional $ 55 million. to complete its constellation with nine additional satellites.
Horizon’s technology is based on an L-band satellite phone detection system called FlyingFish, which the company already sells to governments that operate it from both manned and unmanned aircraft.
The company recently split into two business segments, hardware-based Horizon Aerospace Technologies and data-based Horizon Space Technologies, after FlyingFish helped it achieve revenues of over 4.5 million British pounds ($ 6.4 million) for 2020.
In addition to the satellite launch, Beckner said funding for Horizon’s A-series allows it to hire new staff and cover research and development of extended features, supporting load upgrades. useful software for Amber IOD-3 and beyond.
He said the signals he picks up are demodulated to provide government end users with intelligence data, ranging from radar “fingerprints” to the GPS locations of satellite phones.
Six satellites will provide worldwide coverage with a latency of less than one hour.
Three other companies, all founded in the past six years, have raised capital to deploy commercial RFM networks. These are Aurora Insight, based in the United States, Kleos Space in Luxembourg and Unseenlabs of France.
“The demand for radio frequency detection and monitoring by US and international government organizations has continued to grow rapidly in recent years, with no signs of slowing down,” said Nicolo Dona dalle Rose, director of engagement in space practice. from the boutique management consulting firm Avascent.
“Defense and intelligence agencies are likely to remain the primary consumers of this data for the foreseeable future. However, the appetite is also on the rise among business customers. The first players in this space have the opportunity to shape the way data is consumed and the service is delivered. “
Unseenlabs announced on April 27 that it had raised a € 20 million ($ 25 million) Series B round for its radio frequency geolocation constellation.
The company launched its first satellite in August 2019 and aims to deploy between 20 and 25 by 2025 to expand its services.
BRO-1, its first satellite, was still operational in November when Unseenlabs announced the launch of two more spacecraft: BRO-2 and BRO-3.
He plans to allow complete coverage of the globe and a half-hour visit by enlarging his constellation.
Kleos Space raised $ 13.8 million following the launch on November 7 of its first group of four radiofrequency mapping satellites, providing daily coverage of the Earth.
The company, which says on its website that visit times depend on the specific area of interest, is funded to launch four more satellites in late 2021. It plans ten clusters of four satellites in total.
Beckner was shy about future plans, but confirmed that Horizon’s Amber constellation will develop in the future.
He said work would begin soon to secure additional funding as Horizon ramps up its deployment of cubesats.
The company has also started looking for partners to combine its spatial data with tower-based systems, providing 24/7 coverage of critical maritime choke points, as well as drones for full screen video. to support legal proceedings.