A young data company that is disrupting space industry

Spire is a satellite powered data company that builds products for global ship tracking and high-frequency weather data. Each time Spire puts a new sensor in space, it makes sure that the sensor has an impact on several industries — not just a few. Spire’s satellites host multiple sensors — not just weather.

Technology

Spire’s ship tracking product, Spire Sense, is a nearly complete view of the global trade. With more than 90% of global trade traversing the oceans, understanding shipping behavior means understanding economies just as well as the individual movements of a single ship. Spire’s new plane tracking product, AirSafe, will do the same for planes. Before Spire, radio frequency data collection was only done by large satellites with long lead times — many of which had expensive hosted payloads. Spire has significantly sped up the time to orbit for technology. The ability to get new technology from design to orbit in four months is a complete change for the satellite industry.

Spire satellites are much smaller than a traditional weather satellite. Their LEMUR-2 satellites are only 30cm x 10cm x 10cm — or about the size of a bottle of wine. Rather than taking high-resolution imagery, they have sensitive sensors. Many people may not think of the GPS in their smartphone as a sensor, but it is. Spire too uses GPS technology, but instead of using it for navigation, they read the signals from GPS satellites (which get bent by Earth’s atmosphere) and produce incredibly accurate data about our planet’s atmosphere. The data produced by GPS Radio Occultation is very precise. It’s so precise that it can be used to correct for errors in other types of weather data.

Open source technology found its wide use in Spire. On the hardware side, the form factor of the satellite itself is an open standard — the “CubeSat standard” and it’s based on 10cm cubes. “Launch and deployment of CubeSats are standardized, so we’re able to gain access to a great number of launch opportunities without the added complexity of custom-sized satellites. It’s fundamental to our ability to launch an entire constellation of satellites”, says Nick Allain, the Director of Brand at Spire. “On the software side, our satellites themselves run Linux. Working with our satellites in orbit is not too much different than interacting with a normal remote Linux computer”, he adds.

Since the company opened access to Spire data developers have been using it in different ways. “The most interesting projects have been built by our customers who have integrated our data with other data sets — that’s sometimes called data fusion”, says Nick. “The most interesting example of data fusion, in my opinion, is our data contract with NOAA for a weather data pilot. Ultimately, Spire data will be fused with data gathered from public weather satellites, radiosondes, weather stations, and more into actual forecasts. At Spire, we like to measure our impact on the world by how many people are affected by our data. Almost everyone is impacted by weather”, states Nick. And we cannot disagree with that.

Company culture

It’s always difficult to find the right engineer. That could be software, hardware, embedded, RF communications, or any number of engineering positions that the company has open. There is a rigorous interview process at Spire that involves technical screens, fit cultural interviews, and occasionally projects. Spire has a very high bar and that goes for any position — not just engineering. They have been able to “make their own luck” in finding the right people by opening offices in the US, UK, and Singapore. The team has used that to greatly expand their talent pool beyond what most people would expect for a company of their size. Check out some of the most exciting careers that we discovered at Spire.

Being a relatively young company within the space industry the team often hears the words “space is hard”. Sharing his experience and advice for space startups Nick says: “Often those words come when there is a launch anomaly or the loss of a satellite but the truth is — it’s hard long before those things happen. Every day we face an uphill battle from the standpoints of regulations, licensing, launch delays, vendor component delivery, and the various curve-balls that space throws at us. We also have all the challenges of a normal business such as scaling efficiently, providing customer support, human resources, recruiting great people, maintaining culture as we grow, and finance. Young space startups need to be ready for everything and to think creatively about how they will solve some of these issues right from the get-go. For us, that meant going international early”.

Challenge

If you are an engineer or a space enthusiast, there is something that you could think about and tinker with. According to Nick, Spire is working on tracking ships, planes, and weather. Those are just a start. The next great sensor is out there somewhere — it’s just that no one has thought about or modeled the impact it could have when deployed to a constellation of 100+ satellites.

Curious minds who want to make their place in the world should be thinking about “what data are we missing?”