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Microsatellite startup Bluefield on a mission to track methane emissions from space

By June 12, 2017 No Comments

Very recently, I had a fascinating conversation with Israeli space entrepreneur Yotam Ariel, founder and CEO of Bluefield. A passionate environmentalist, Yotam has assembled a global team of top scientists to build and launch microsatellites that monitor emissions of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than the more commonly known carbon dioxide.

Yotam’s motivation to get into aerospace

Yotam started Bluefield after successfully creating a startup in the renewable energy sector and growing it into a multinational company.  When he travelled to China over a decade ago to study business and Chinese language at Xiamen University, he was first introduced to the incredible scale of growth in the country’s manufacturing industry. Yotam was keen to harness this power for the purpose of environmental sustainability. This resulted in the founding of Bennu Solar in 2009, a company that supplies solar panel kits to some of the remotest corners of Africa. It was a difficult undertaking, but after years of hard work, Bennu Solar turned into an incredible success in the global solar panel supply chain with multi-billion dollar companies on their customer list.

The success of Bennu Solar has enabled Yotam to take a step back from running the business and focus his energies on to his second entrepreneurial venture. Having travelled extensively around the world with his wife, Yotam had the firsthand experience of the ravages caused by climate change in many developing nations across South Asia, Latin America and Africa. This along with his extensive research pointed towards the urgent need for more effective monitoring of emissions at a global level.

Yotam drew further inspiration from serial space entrepreneur Charles Miller’s ideas on the next big entrepreneurial opportunities existing in the space frontier. Charles Miller envisioned a future in which orbiting satellites monitored greenhouse gas emissions from the earth’s surface from space. Yotam recalls, “When I heard Charles say someday somebody will have a greenhouse monitoring nano-satellites constellation, I said to myself, that somebody is me and someday is today.’’  Charles Miller is now one of Bluefield’s advisors.

Bluefield’s technology

Bluefield’s mission is to build and launch around 20 backpack sized microsatellites into orbit between 2019 and 2021 forming a constellation around the earth. These microsatellites will be mounted with methane sensors and will scour the earth’s surface and detect methane emissions from a wide range of sources such as natural gas pipelines, coal mines and livestock farms. Being placed in a sun-synchronous orbit at 550 km above the earth’s surface will enable daily measurements and coverage of the entire globe.

Video simulation of Bluefield’s methane tracking microsatellite (Courtesy Bluefield)

Experts agree that getting accurate measurements of atmospheric methane is of particular importance in the global fight against climate change. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that methane’s Global Warming Potential (GWP) is 72 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, making methane one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Thus, mitigating methane emissions will have a much greater impact on climate change than minimising the consequences of carbon dioxide alone.

Bluefield’s microsatellite methane remote-sensing technology will allow for the generation of vast amounts of data on methane emissions throughout the globe which will be made available to clients and customers on a fee-for-service model.

Application of Bluefield’s Data

Yotam believes that a broad range of industries will benefit from Bluefield’s technology. Resources companies have been facing heightened pressures from shareholders to institute more accurate accounting and reporting around climate change risks due to increased emissions regulations in many countries including the US. Monitoring emissions across sites that are often spread across hundreds of square kilometres is fairly problematic, thus exposing these companies to higher levels of regulatory risk. Current detection methods for gas leaks, such as aircraft and drones are inefficient, expensive and time-consuming.

This is where satellite data from a third party offers an edge since the client company doesn’t have to invest in any additional infrastructure. Bluefield will capture all the data via its satellites and store it on its cloud database. The client will then have to simply log on to the database for access. This also enables continuous monitoring of sites and repairing leaks before things get out of hand.

Yotam believes that the availability of rich datasets will usher in a new era of greenhouse emissions accounting within many emitting industries and help users comply with existing regulations, respond to leaks much faster and minimise wastage of resources.

The data will also be of interest to hedge funds that monitor commodities movements and to scientific and environmental research organisations for ongoing monitoring of the environment. Yotam says, “Data from peatlands in Indonesia, mining in Australia, pipelines in Russia, cattle in Brazil – it’s going to be all there.”

Already, dozens of large organisations have expressed their intent to utilise the data, and Yotam expects their platform to have thousands of users once the project becomes operational and images start getting generated. Bluefield also plans on expanding into remote-sensing of other greenhouse gases.

Bluefield founder Yotam Ariel (left) with Chief Technical Officer Richard Lachance (right) (Image courtesy Yotam Ariel)

Assembling the Bluefield Team

Recognising the odds against a venture in space technology, Yotam chuckled as he pointed out, “If you have the best scientist in the world, then maybe you can do it.” While not having formal qualifications in aerospace, Yotam has been able to put into practice his collaborative and leadership skills and pull together a diverse team of experts all focussed on the mission of launching the next generation of emission detection technology within the next four years.

After settling on the initial idea, Yotam did an extensive global outreach to the leading experts in the fields of aerospace and methane remote sensing via LinkedIn introductions and finally was able to get a top expert panel around Bluefield.

Yotam says, “If you don’t want to have breakfast with your team every morning, you can work with the talent from the entire world from your very own laptop.”

Bluefield has engaged veteran space scientist Richard Lachance as the Chief Technical Officer.  With over 25 years of experience in aerospace, Richard is leading the development of the methane sensor technology. Data applications and clients acquisition are being supported by Giancarlo Cesarello, a former senior geoscientist at Shell, Schlumberger and ENI. This leaves Yotam to focus heavily on key partnerships and capital raising.

Bluefield’s timeline and strategy

The Bluefield team is currently working towards a demo sensor to be released later this year. This sensor, mounted on a tower in a controlled environment, will help prospective clients get an understanding of the mechanics of methane sensing. Next, ruggedized sensors will be demonstrated on aircraft and high altitude balloons to produce data more similar to that obtained from microsatellites.

By 2019, the first two microsatellites are planned to go into orbit and provide monthly measurements. By 2021, the full constellation of around 20 microsatellites will be in orbit providing daily measurements. This will allow Bluefield to detect, monitor and quantify nearly every methane emission around the planet.

Completely self-funded till now, Bluefield’s satellite concept has attracted significant interest with the team being selected to pitch to investors at NASA’s International Space Station Research and Development (ISSR&D) Conference at Washington DC in July. Yotam is excited to be at the event that will host leading space innovators including Elon Musk and Kate Rubins.

Microsatellites in Space 2.0

As Angel investor Brandon Farwell writes in Forbes, Space 2.0 is upon us with a resurging interest in harnessing the power of space technology for human use. Although technologies such as remote sensing have been in development for many decades, these technologies are finally entering a viable phase with many commercial players helping to reduce the cost per kg ($/kg) of putting satellites into orbit.

Along with Bluefield, many other startups are trying to tap into the earth observation data market in which microsatellites fitted with sensors can make precise measurements of the earth’s surface. Space consulting firm Euroconsult valued this market at US $1.7B in 2015 but predicts that it will expand to $3B by 2025 with applications in resource monitoring, defence and infrastructure supporting the industry’s growth. The data from these microsatellites will be used in many new and interesting ways with AI systems helping to process and overlay data from diverse sources and improve decision-making capabilities for companies, organisations and governments.

Shu Das

Author Shu Das

Melbourne based scientist, business consultant and STEM blogger. Passionate about telling the story of the Australian startup scene.

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