Detect forest fires and brush fires as early as possible to prevent worse: The Munich space start-up OroraTech wants to make this possible with its satellites that monitor the earth’s surface with infrared cameras. SpaceX has now transported the first of these into orbit. The second is to follow later this year.
By Wolfgang Kerler
It is Thursday, January 13, 2022 at exactly 5:33 p.m. Spatially separate, but together, Thomas Grübler, Martin Langer, the OroraTech team, but also customers, partners and friends of the start-up are following the live stream of SpaceX’s Transporter 3 mission. Then the decisive words finally sounded out: “OroraTech separation confirmed.” The Falcon 9 launch vehicle successfully released the start-up’s first satellite into its orbit at an altitude of around 525 kilometers.
“It was really exciting,” says Thomas Grübler, CEO of OroraTech, a little tired but smiling with satisfaction in an interview with 1E9 the day after. With the shoebox-sized satellite, the start-up can now test whether the technology it has been developing since the company was founded in September 2018 really works. It should make it possible to detect forest and bush fires not after hours, but shortly after they break out, when they are still small and controllable.
OroraTech wants to close monitoring gaps
The world last saw just two weeks ago how big the problem is that OroraTech wants to tackle. Several fires broke out in the US state of Colorado in the middle of winter. Tens of thousands of people had to flee their homes. By the time the forest fire was extinguished, 1,000 buildings had been destroyed – and the damage totaled around a billion dollars. The natural disaster ended a year in which such fires wreaked havoc worldwide, whether in southern Spain, Greece, California or Siberia.
“Forest fires are also a natural phenomenon, so it’s not about preventing them completely,” explains Thomas Grübler. “But due to the long periods of drought in recent years, they are getting a lot bigger and more and more uncontrollable – and causing massive destruction.” The earlier a fire is detected, the easier it is to prevent entire residential areas from burning down.
So far, forests have been monitored primarily by observation towers, airplanes or drones. However, this is expensive and incomplete, which is why there are delays. Satellites are also already contributing to fire detection. OroraTech itself uses the thermal images from twenty large science satellites for its existing customers – private forest owners, but also authorities – and evaluates them with its software, which is also based on artificial intelligence. But this is not an all-round satisfactory solution. On the one hand, because the infrared images have not yet been evaluated directly in the satellites, but are first sent to earth. This takes a while. On the other hand – and this is the bigger problem – because the satellites are not always in the right place at the right time.
“Unfortunately, there is no satellite data in the afternoon – exactly when most fires break out,” says Martin Langer, OroraTech’s CTO, of 1E9. “That’s because the satellites we’ve been using up until now weren’t primarily designed for forest fire detection.”
In order to ensure comprehensive surveillance around the clock, you would need an entire network of satellites that keep an eye on the entire planet with infrared cameras. Science satellites are hardly suitable for this, if only because their production often takes years, consumes enormous sums of money and they are the size of refrigerators or even cars.
In contrast, OroraTech’s technology fits into a standardized CubeSat, which is shaped like a small cube. The start-up has succeeded in developing an infrared or thermal imaging camera that does not require the cooling that was previously required. This is crucial because it takes up ten times as much space as the actual optics of the camera.
“We have developed the first miniaturized multispectral thermal imaging camera,” says Thomas Grübler. This makes compact satellites possible that are significantly cheaper to manufacture and transport. OroraTech’s goal is now within reach: by the end of 2026, the start-up wants to place a constellation with 100 satellites and thus be able to observe every point on earth within half an hour. The data from the infrared cameras will then be evaluated directly in the satellites so that forest fire warnings can be sent to earth immediately.
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The satellite just transported into space by SpaceX will probably not be able to prevent a fire on its own. “This is our first mission,” says Martin Langer. “Our main concern is to test our technology.” That’s why OroraTech also concentrated on the inner workings of the CubeSat – camera, AI-capable processor unit, software – and left the construction of the satellite to the Luxembourgish manufacturer Spire, which specializes in small satellites .
In the fourth quarter of this year, OroraTech intends to send a second, more technically complex satellite into space. By the end of 2023, eight satellites will then form a mini constellation that should already deliver tangible results. “With this alone, we will halve the observation gap that currently exists,” says Martin Langer.
Now, however, Thomas Grübler and Martin Langer are waiting for the first data from their first satellite. Transmission is scheduled to begin in a month. The two hope that the pandemic will allow them to celebrate this moment with the entire OroraTech team – not just virtually.
Cover photo: OroraTech
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