Satellites & The Cloud
Doug Mohney, Editor-in-Chief of Space IT Bridge, breaks down how satellite technology is changing the cloud and communication capabilities of the world.
Raymond Hawkins: All right. Well, welcome again to another addition of Not Your Father’s Data Center. I am your host, Raymond Hawkins, Chief Revenue Officer at Compass Datacenters. Today, we are joined by the Editor In Chief at Space IT Bridge, Doug Mohney. Also, thank you so much. Doug, thank you for joining me and Doug, if you are willing, we’d love to hear you give us a little bit of background on yourself. I know that ultimately writing about data in space has been a bit of a journey for you going back to the IP days. So if you don’t mind going back to the beginning, we’d love to hear your story.
Doug Mohney: Yeah. Well, hopefully we don’t have to spend two hours on my story. I started out with an internet startup back in the mid 1990s that went public. It was Digex in Washington DC area. And then after I got out of that internet startup, I went into another startup that dealt with the internet and satellites. So that kind of meshed two worlds there for a while. And from there the company, which started out as Sky Cash and got renamed Cidera just before it was supposed to go public and then didn’t go public due to the dotcom crash, I ended up switching careers from doing marketing and sales within companies to writing about companies.
Doug Mohney: So I started writing about internet, data centers, and satellite stuff. And then somewhere in my head, I got it in my head that, “Hey, if I write about satellite stuff, then I can connect it to data center stuff. I could go to space launches and have an excuse to go to space launches.” So that’s where I ended up at Space IT Bridge today talking about the intersection of space technology and IT technology, which not a lot of people are talking about right now. And I mean people are starting get savvy to the fact that there’s a tremendous amount of data being generated by satellites today and that number is, I don’t want to say exponentially increased, but dramatically increased over the next several years as more companies put up constellations of satellites to observe the earth and to do communications, to keep track of ships and planes, the IOT side of things. So there’s a lot of stuff going on there.
Raymond Hawkins: So yeah, we’re going to dig into all that, Doug, because I’m with you, earth observation and shipping routes, all of that stuff’s all going to be great stuff we’ll get to. So do me a favor, let’s go back to Digex just for a minute. The business there was strictly IP, managing IP circuits and those kinds of things?
Doug Mohney: Digex, well Digex had two main businesses. They did connectivity, that is lease lines connectivity for businesses. And then the other side of the Digex equation was web hosting, which evolved into the cloud today. So we were running servers for people like CIA, American Association of Libraries, Amtrak was one of our customers at that time. So there were a lot of good mix of government and commercial side people.
Raymond Hawkins: Gotcha. So yeah, Doug, we call it cloud today, but yeah, the concept of hosting your compute somewhere else is not new and I certainly remember fondly the phase that we called hosting, web hosting and server hosting. So yeah, okay. So Digex was in the hosting business and the connectivity business, and then walk me through Cidera, I’m going to make sure I say it, Cidera Analytics. Walk me through that business.
Doug Mohney: Well Cidera the company used satellite broadband in order to deliver bulk information to the edge of the internet, because back in, I’d say pre 2000-ish, the big issue was moving larger bulk data from where it was located at meaning data centers and the like to the edge, to what we now call the edge. And satellite broadband was a way to deliver data directly to the edge without having to move it through terrestrial choke points or connection points. So at the time it seemed like a really great idea until dotcom turned into the bomb and a lot of the… And then it was revealed that a lot of the hype about being there an infinite demand for fiber kind of died off, there was an over supply of fiber. And then satellite just proved not to have the bandwidth in order to deliver bulk data that fiber did as more and more people got connected to fiber at lower and lower cost.
Raymond Hawkins: Gotcha. Gotcha. And thus, we see fiber everywhere today. So you can steer me away from this, but I’m going to have a hard time not asking you, when you have the Inquirer on your resume, just got to ask, what was working at the Inquirer like?
Doug Mohney: Well, this wasn’t the national Inquirer, but-
Raymond Hawkins: Oh, okay. All right.
Doug Mohney: … [crosstalk 00:05:43] UK Inquirer.
Raymond Hawkins: I gotcha.
Doug Mohney: Which UK Inquirer was a cheeky publication. They were fun to work with and they have that British sensibility or flavor of being a little bit snarky when talking about IT issues. So it was really fun working there, but no, it wasn’t the national Inquirer.
Raymond Hawkins: Not that Inquirer, all right. Good to know.
Doug Mohney: I would be in recovery if I was working there.
Raymond Hawkins: No. All right. So a lifetime in technology, mostly networking, sales and marketing, as that business matured decided, “Hey, this is fun to write about this stuff.” So give me a little bit of the personal background of what got you fascinated because we make the jump from IT sales and marketing over to space, your personal interest in space, what was the first thing that you said, “Hey, that’s cool?” Did you see a launch? What got you fascinated with space?
Doug Mohney: Well, like any child of the 60s and 70s, there was a big love of Apollo and a big love of going to the moon and then it evolved into, “Hey, the space shuttle is cool and astronauts are cool.” So a lot of people from that generation, sorry TikTok kids, we had a good foundation there, and I found that as the space shuttle program was winding down, I wanted to go see a space shuttle launch because I’d never seen a space shuttle launch. So there was this interesting confluence with the government sponsored, the government push for space systems, as it wound down, there was at the same time a start of commercial activities, basically, how do you make money out of space without the space shuttle or how do you make money out of space with off-the-shelf data?
Doug Mohney: So, I mean over the past decade, there’s been this mind shift in terms of how people think about space and where… Pioneers in the sector realize that you don’t have to send up these big, expensive satellites in order to make money. You can build smaller satellites and smaller satellites mean that you can send them up cheaper. And if you can build satellites and launch them cheaper, you get into this, God help me, virtuous cycle that you can get more data and basically what it boils down to, and as basically you get more data back for less capital cost of launch and building satellites.
Doug Mohney: So that’s what a bunch of companies started to do. And then that whole ecosystem started developing, a lot of people building small satellites and building companies around them. And then today, now we have this proliferation of companies like Planet and Satellogic and BlackSky and tons of other people who are building satellites, building large constellations of satellites to collect data by photographing the earth or whatever. And got to be very interesting because now what they’re doing is they’re going public through specs and raising lots of money. So it’s a very happening place to be right now.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. Doug, there’s lots of, of course visibility and conversation. I know our media darling billionaires keep shooting themselves into space and everyone wants to watch that. So you wanted to see a space shuttle launch, you grew up with the affections for the whole Apollo mission and how do we catch the Russians and Sputnik scared everybody, I’m dating both of us with those references. And how do you make the leap? Where does space IT come into your purview and you decide, “Hey, these guys are a great place where I can write about technology and write about space?” How did that come about? And then I want to get into a bunch of the subjects you’ve raised.
Doug Mohney: Well, I think it just struck me, I don’t want to say once a generation, but once a decade you see a paradigm shift, right? We saw this with personal computers, right? Where, blah, blah, blah, we had all these junky personal, well not junky, but we had all these primitive personal computers. And then all of a sudden the IBM PC came out, bang, businesses, they all had to get IBM PCs and they all had to get… And all of a sudden everybody had a personal computer within, I don’t want to say overnight, within a three, five year period, it had to be the thing. Okay?
Doug Mohney: Then from the 80s, we shifted to the 90s, and then you had this same phenomenon where the internet was this geek toy and where academics were sending email and talking, blah, blah, blah. And then all of a sudden, when the internet went commercial for whatever definition of commercial, bang, three years later you went from nobody knowing about the internet to going to your local football stadium and they’re buying www.redskins.com, or well that’s Redskins [inaudible 00:11:10] but you had companies, they all had to get on the internet in a very short period of time. And that was the 90s.
Doug Mohney: Now we’re in this period of a similar paradigm shift, if you’ll forgive the analogies and buzzes, where we started off where satellites were very expensive, they were like mainframes where it’s very expensive to launch a satellite, very expensive to build a satellite, very awkward to get information from that satellite. So it was very costly. So you had this whole mainframe situation where satellites were this whole-year resource, but the small guys, the cube set guys, the small set guys realized that, “Okay, I don’t need to build this $500 million satellite. I can build a satellite for under a million dollars or less and get useful information out of it.”
Doug Mohney: So you all of a sudden had this shift from mainframes to cellular phones in essence, where from satellites became a very expensive commodity where like a mainframe, you ran it for a decade or more and milk that cow for every single bit out of it, to a cell phone mentality where you buy a cell phone, three years later, you buy a new cell phone. In this case, you buy a small satellite, three to five years later, you throw it out and you launch the new one. And then the new satellites that you launch, since you’re launching them rapidly, you get that technology refresh, you get a constant technology refresh as you put and update your technology in orbit.
Raymond Hawkins: So those big earlier ones, am I putting those further out in orbit than these littler ones that you’re talking about now? Do I want them out there further and sitting there longer? Is there a function? I mean because we’re talking about orders of magnitude of $500 million satellite and a million dollar satellite, I got to believe these have vastly different functions.
Doug Mohney: Well they do, and part of that’s physics. And when we talk about physics, we’ll talk about the physical physics of moving things from point A to point B. In other words, when you build that $500 million satellite, in order for it to sit over one part of the earth, you have to push it out 22,000 plus miles, and that costs you a lot of rocket fuel and a big rocket. So if you’re going to go put it up there and it’s going to be up there for a decade or more, that satellite has to work perfectly, that satellite has to be tested perfectly. And-
Raymond Hawkins: So the service calls 22,000 miles up aren’t very regular, are they?
Doug Mohney: Yeah, that’s correct. Yeah. Yeah. Basically fault tolerance and things like that are built into those types of satellites. Now, the other thing about physics is that since you’re 22,000 miles out, you have this thing called lag, right? Where speed of light starts taking effect. So to go up and back from orbit’s half second or more better in terms of speed of light and in terms of all the little nuts and bolts and turnarounds time. So that half second lag sucks-
Raymond Hawkins: That’s if I’m moving at the speed of light, which radio transmissions or data transmissions don’t, but go ahead. Yeah. I’m with you.
Doug Mohney: Well, yeah, plus you get the overhead for data and packet, [crosstalk 00:14:39] starts dragging out a little bit more. But the other thing is that I need more power. Since I’m going 23,000 plus miles, if I’m using radio waves, I need a bigger antenna on the ground, number one, and up in the sky I need a much larger, more powerful broadcast mechanism in order to get the signal down. So between those two things, again that adds to, I need to have a satellite that has big solar arrays because I need the power and I need bigger radios so I need the power. So all those things add up to a fact that geosynchronous orbit, those initial satellites were great in that you could put up one and serve a good chunk of the earth, if not half the earth, depending upon what radio frequencies you do.
Doug Mohney: So putting up a small satellite closer to the earth gives you a lot of benefits. And so 22,000 miles away from the earth’s surface, if you fly a small satellite lower at a couple hundred miles, you don’t need the big radios, you don’t need the big antennas on either end. All of a sudden, you can do useful work with a satellite that 400 miles and is the size of a box for a wine bottle, 30 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters.
Raymond Hawkins: Oh really? That small?
Doug Mohney: Well, that’s kind of like the benchmark, and that’s really big for some satellites. There are companies that are pushing that and going from that wine box size down to smaller. For instance, Swarm Technologies has a satellite, to do IOT stuff, we’re not talking broadband or anything like that, but swarm technologies has a satellite to pick up data from IOT sensors that’s a size of a piece of Texas toast. It literally is 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by a quarter centimeter, and it’s packed with radios and power and intelligence.
Raymond Hawkins: Doug, anytime we can work Texas toast into a podcast, I think we’ve been successful. We’ve had a good podcast. So thank you for that.
Doug Mohney: Okay. Now I just work in donuts and I’ll be happy.
Raymond Hawkins: That’s right, exactly.
Doug Mohney: But so the thing is that, to borrow from Jerry Cornell, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. In a low earth orbit, the satellites are moving faster. They’re not… So if you’re out of geosynchronous orbit at 22,000 miles away, the satellite moves in a rough orbit at the same time as the earth rotates. So there’s this illusion of a fixed position. If you’re in low earth orbit, those satellites, since they’re lower, they zip around faster. So a single satellite zips overhead and maybe you see it for five to 10 minutes a day, twice a day for a single satellite. But since satellites are cheaper, you can build a bunch of satellites so you’ve got a satellite zipping overhead every time you need it, essentially if you can launch enough satellites.
Raymond Hawkins: So two big questions just as a layperson trying to understand this, Doug, just help me with a couple things. One, I got to believe that my field of vision, my field of view at 22,000 feet is radically different than my field of vision at, excuse me, 22,000 miles than it is at 400 miles. So I’m getting a smaller slice, I’m getting a smaller picture. Am I accurate in that? I got to be getting a much smaller view of the world at 400 miles than I am 22,000.
Doug Mohney: Well, yeah, but I need a smaller camera to see the… If we’re talking about imagery, I mean a smaller camera because I only have to focus on something that’s 400 miles away versus 22,000 miles away if we’re talking about imagery. Right?
Raymond Hawkins: Right. And it’s for earth observation, sure. Right. And then you use this, you’ve used this term and I’ve read it before constellations, is that literally what I think it means? So there might be a train of 100 of these that are flying in some sort of controlled format or fashion? Is that what we’re talking about or is it bigger than that?
Doug Mohney: Depends upon the application. I’ll give you the for instance, the for instance is that if you’re talking about communication satellites, things like SpaceX Starlink or the OneWeb Constellation, SpaceX has over 1,500 satellites right now to deliver broadband to the entire world. Okay? OneWeb is in the process of filling out their constellation, they’re at 300 plus satellites and they’ll scale up to about 648 or so satellites to provide broadband coverage to the entire world. But broadband’s kind of funny in that you want to have it on all the time, so you need a satellite you can reach all the time [inaudible 00:19:44].
Doug Mohney: For other applications, you can start off with a few satellites and as more people get onto your service, you launch more and then your coverage time to take pictures of the world gets a lot better. So if I put up a dozen satellites in the world to take pictures, to collect imagery, I may be able to visit places on the earth maybe three to four times a day. But if I increase that number from that handful of a dozen or so up to 300, all of a sudden I could take pictures of anywhere in the world pretty much 24 by seven.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. So Doug, you used the term, you said they want to deliver broadband anywhere, so are we literally thinking that we’re going to deliver internet services bouncing up into space and back all over the planet? So when I go to Sub-Saharan Africa, I can have internet service there via satellite?
Doug Mohney: The short answer is, if they have the licensing. It’s all about the politicians. I mean you could do that today in Sub-Saharan Africa if they had landing rights, in other words, broadcast permissions to operate within there. Yes, you could have, depending upon what network you have, you could have… Well, we’ll use SpaceX as an example, SpaceX could give you up to 300 megabytes a second broadband into a less than one meter-ish dish, right? And you can get up to 30 MG upstream today, but remember, that’s optimal. If I’m not quite-
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. If I’m not perfectly aligned right.
Doug Mohney: If I’m not perfectly aligned or there’s trees that you haven’t managed to shop down or other crap in the way, then that’s going to go down. But if you go to Reddit, don’t believe me, believe Reddit.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. Yeah.
Doug Mohney: If you go to Reddit, there are users getting over 300 megabytes a second upstream, I mean downstream coming down from the sky. And 30-
Raymond Hawkins: So Doug, how does that get worked? Because I know here in the US, we manage the spectrum via the FCC, I guess, manage the spectrum and sell that spectrum. When we’re going up in space, do they then take over the spectrum management once you get back inside the atmosphere when you get over… How do they manage that? Because you used, “Hey, if there were the appropriate licenses.” So I got to imagine, I’ve set up this constellation, I’m spinning satellites around the earth, I got all this bandwidth, I can stream it down to guys who have my dish, but a guy in New Jersey and a guy in Nairobi are getting totally different experiences, from a regulatory perspective, but conceptually could get the same experience from a bandwidth perspective.
Doug Mohney: Well, from a regulatory perspective, then it’s legwork. SpaceX has to go around, or whatever the satellite broadband carrier is, has to go around and do the legwork with the local authorities because the local authorities control the radio frequencies within that nation, right? So basically SpaceX has to go to that country and go, “Hi, I’d like to operate into your country,” and then work it out so that, what they call landing rights, in other words permission to operate within the country.
Raymond Hawkins: Right. Landing rights.
Doug Mohney: Yeah. So SpaceX has landing rights, or the ability to operate and sell dishes, well operate and sell dishes in pretty much most of Europe, parts of Africa I’ve seen, and definitely Australia and I think some parts of Asia. I’m not exactly sure, there are places where SpaceX will not operate due to government control like Russia or China.
Raymond Hawkins: In China I can thank you, yeah.
Doug Mohney: Russia and China are very problematic because… But who knows? They might get, you pay enough people and you have enough lawyers, anything’s possible from a political standpoint. But for right now, I don’t see SpaceX operating within China or within Russia because there’s no desire, I think. Elon Musk likes things simple and having to deal with Russia would give him certain headaches since he’s also selling to Department of Defense.
Raymond Hawkins: Right. So Doug, as I think through this, so I’ve been to Sub-Saharan Africa, I’ve been to Kenya and Uganda and South Sudan, and my first trip ever there was really mind expanding for me. I walk into a village, there’s no paved roads, there’s no sanitation, there’s no two-story buildings, there’s not an inch of concrete sidewalk anywhere. And yet people were walking up to me with cell phones and I was like, “Wait a minute. There’s no infrastructure here at all. How do you have a cell phone?” They would walk with me out to the edge of town and show me the cell phone tower that was out there running on batteries and running on a generator.
Raymond Hawkins: And I was like, “Okay, that’s interesting. I get how the tower, how are you running your phone?” And they had car batteries with these contraptions set up on top of it and they would plug their cell phone into a car battery and they just completely skipped over the whole landline delivery of telecom in those countries. They’re like, “Hey, we had gotten so far down the path with cellular, we didn’t need landlines.” Is this the same thing when we think about delivering broadband to those places?
Doug Mohney: Well, it’s an interesting trap, and I don’t want to say trap, but I want to address the meta point that you brought up about Africa. If you take a look at the different fiber projects Google is starting to run into Africa and the different fiber projects that, there’s a big fiber loop I think that was built by a French telecom that runs around Africa, and then you get spurs off going into each country. Fiber sooner or later shows up, and I’m not saying that the place you visited in Sub-Saharan Africa, I don’t know however many years ago or if it was recently, but I’m willing to bet that some time in the next 10 years or 20 years, that cell tower eventually gets hooked up with fiber because you’re going to need more a broadband in order to service the next generation of phones and to service the expanded services that you’re seeing bootstrapped off of simple cellular services.
Doug Mohney: So I’ll leave it at that point for now. Now, let me shift gears here and talk about how satellite is going to help connectivity, like that cell tower you saw in Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s being back hauled somehow, right? And that back haul may be fix point to point wireless today, right? And so in essence, you need a network or a string, right? A string of tower here, tower here, tower here that talk to each other. The nice part about satellite, and there’s two kicks to this. One is that you can use satellite broadband that’s just coming out that’s going to be low latency, because it’s close to the earth so instead of that half second plus of overhead you have with geosync, you have that tens of milliseconds latency delay, because you’re closer to the earth. So things like SpaceX and other people in the LEO space delivering broadband will give you what I’d say near-fiber quality, although that’s marketing, we’re not really sure, but near-fiber quality delivery of broadband to anywhere in the world.
Doug Mohney: So you could, in a place in Sub-Saharan Africa, set up a cell site outside of normal coverage and its back haul is not fixed wireless point to point, but its back haul is up to the satellite and then you get connected into the cellular network via satellite back haul. And that’s really promising for, there’s big plans closer to here in Canada to use LEO broadband satellite to do cellular back haul in Canada, and then you’ve got folks like Bharti Airtel working with OneWeb to do back haul in India, Africa, Asia, in other developing world markets.
Raymond Hawkins: So for my friends who don’t know the acronyms for space, LEO is low-earth orbit, which is when you’re talking about 300, 400 miles up. It’s low-earth orbit stuff, low latency, close to the planet stuff.
Doug Mohney: Yep, yep.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. Gotcha.
Doug Mohney: And geo meaning geosynchronous is very far away.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. Yeah. So Doug, another thing that, I don’t know of a simpler way to ask it, who’s putting these satellites up there? Because I think of satellite stuff and I think about it from a government perspective, I think about it, you referenced the shuttle program. I think of people putting things in space are government entities because of the sheer cost of the technology and the sheer cost of propulsion and the rockets and all of it is expensive, but that has changed in the last seven, 10 years. So who’s putting satellites up there today and are we getting rockets lifted off the planet on a regular basis other than just the ones with William Shatner and Elon Musk?
Doug Mohney: Okay. Let me deal with the hype, and then we’ll go with the reality. And I don’t really hype, but the problem is that there’s been a media obsession or media focus with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Richard Branson as the fighting billionaires to basically throw people up into space for a minute and a half and then bring them back down and then collect their $250,000 for a 10-minute joy ride. And that’s cool, but that’s not where the money’s being made.
Doug Mohney: SpaceX is launching rockets on a regular basis. Basically they do a ride share where they get 20, 30, 40 companies and they put them on top of a Falcon 9 rocket and SpaceX is launching at least three times a year these dedicated ride share missions to throw up 20, 30, 40, 50 commercial satellites at a time in order to build out these constellations. But all the money, but to answer your question question, who’s paying for it? It’s a mixture of commercial investment and some subsidies from the government.
Raymond Hawkins: Okay. But all those companies that get on that Falcon 9, they’re all paying some fee and the business model for SpaceX is, we generate enough fees that we cover the cost of design, development, and deployment of the rocket?
Doug Mohney: Yes. And right now SpaceX is making money because they built the rocket, they know how to build the rocket, the rocket works, and oh, by the way, the first stage flies back so there’s an initial call… So they can refuel it and then send it back up a couple weeks or a couple months later. So they can reuse their rockets. It’s not like you used to pay… If you want a shiny new Falcon 9 off of the line, it costs you like $60 million for a flight. But SpaceX now gets back that first stage, so it costs them much less to launch things up into orbit now because they reuse the first stage. And that first stage… The thing is a first stage, since that’s providing most of the power to get things moving fast, the first stage has some very expensive engines in it and there’s not the Falcon 9 has nine first-stage engines, very, very expensive.
Doug Mohney: So if I get the most expensive bits back and I can reuse them, then hallelujah, my cost to launch significantly goes down. For launch, SpaceX for instance, they’ve launched the Falcon 9 first stage, or reused the Falcon 9 first stage up to 10 times so far. They used to do it two or three times and they’d be like, “Oops,” and then a crash once. But now they’re up to the point where… Or they realize that they couldn’t, it’s been evolution. First we had our clunky PCs, now I got my nice Dell sitting on here that does gaming. Similarly, the initial Falcon 9s, you get two to three flights of them. Now the Falcon 9, they can get up to 10 flights out of them and SpaceX has said that they may be able to squeeze more than 10 flights out of them in future models that roll off the production line.
Raymond Hawkins: That’s awesome. 10. I mean, yeah, that’s an incredible change to the economics if you can use the thing over and over 10 times, it just fundamentally changes it. So let me ask you, and I may drive us down a ditch here, I apologize. Are we getting better at the fuel that we deploy in this? Because I’ve always understood that the fuel, the amount of propulsion compared to the weight of the fuel was always tough. Are we getting better at the fuel for these rockets?
Doug Mohney: Well I think the cost of fuel is a fractional-
Raymond Hawkins: Not from a cost. I mean weight, the cost of how much propulsion we get versus how much weight, because we’re moving every kilo you move out of earth orbit, there’s a amount of propulsion you have to move. Well some of that is the weight of the fuel. That’s what I’m asking, are we getting better at the ratio of the weight of the fuel to the amount of propulsion we get out of the fuel?
Doug Mohney: We’ve got some better optimization, yes. But we could nerd down this for a while, but in the bigger scheme of things, when it costs you $60 million to build a shiny new Falcon 9, and that includes a launch cost. Launch cost for the fuel is probably mumble mumble, couple hundred thousand dollars of-
Raymond Hawkins: Okay, so it’s not a big part of the problem anymore?
Doug Mohney: Couple hundred thousand. Well, yeah, because you’re talking about a couple hundred thousand dollars and basically kerosene JP-4, jet fuel. Basically highly processed jet fuel and liquid oxygen.
Raymond Hawkins: Gotcha. Gotcha. So when we’re looking at the equation, it’s not a big enough problem in the equation anymore for us to spend a lot of energy on? Got it.
Doug Mohney: Or for moving anywhere anything all the way up to geosynchronous orbit, it’s not a problem. You want to go to the moon, then you start getting into refueling and mining stuff and mining asteroids for oil, not for oil, mining asteroids for ice, but right now it’s not a big deal in the bigger scheme of things.
Raymond Hawkins: Okay. Got it. Okay. That’s what I wanted to hear. It’s not a big deal. And so here’s my next question. Talk to me about business applications. Who’s getting… I mean, so I got why I need broadband and somebody’s going to pay me for that broadband connection, I got that business model, but that’s just one of them. Give me a handful of other business models of why having satellites in space close by, in LEO that allow me to make a real business case for what I’m doing up there.
Doug Mohney: Okay. The best example that I can give you brings in a bunch of stuff, and I don’t want to play the African card, but I got to play the African card. I was at conference about a month ago and there was a company that does data analytics and they started talking about how they monitor pipelines in Nigeria for that, oil pipelines because oil’s a big deal, oil money fuels the government, so somebody coming in and sneaking in and pirating oil out of the pipeline is a bad thing for everybody. So the person telling this story says, “Well, here’s what happens. First of all, we tap into the commercial satellites that are available today to monitor radio traffic on the ground.” So they have a trio of satellites operated by a commercial company that fly over the Nigerian pipeline area and they listen for anomalous radio traffic.
Doug Mohney: What do mean by that? They listen for handheld radio traffic in the middle of nowhere essentially, because if you’re in the middle of nowhere next to a pipeline in Nigeria, if you’re not a guy, they don’t have people driving the pipelines up and down all the time. So if there are people using VHF type of handheld radios, your pipeline, well maybe there’s something funny going on there. We need to have a closer look. So having that indicator, or that piece of inform saying, “There’s some radio traffic here.” We don’t know exactly what’s going on, but we want to look for other pieces of evidence to indicate if this is legitimate or if there’s something going on, if there’s something illegal going on.
Doug Mohney: So, that information runs from one computer model, and there’s a machine to machine communication, or however you want to call it, where a message goes to a satellite-tasking website and it goes, “We need you to take pictures of this area of interest because we don’t know what’s going on there.” So there might be messaging going to optical satellites, that is visible, and there’ll also be message going to radar satellite. So then the AI, and this all happens with magical AI, no but this all happens via processes. So the satellites are automatically tasked to fly over this area of interest where there’s radio activity, not radioactive, radio activity.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. Radio activity. I got it. Yeah. Yeah. Got it.
Doug Mohney: Over the pipeline to look at it in radar and look at it in visual. Now the visual people are looking for… Well, the visual and the radar satellites are looking for two things. They’re looking for a boat nearby, because usually a pipeline’s near a waterway, or they’re looking for a barge, because if you’re going to steal a lot of oil, you either need a freighter or you need a barge with a bunch of barrels on it.
Doug Mohney: So what happens is the pictures come in, the AI looks for images of barge or image of boat. And if there’s a boat nearby, then you’ve got there’s a boat nearby and if this boat doesn’t have its transponder turned on, meaning that it’s a dark boat, meaning it’s doing something illegal, all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, we need to call the authorities because somebody’s stealing oil out of this pipeline.” And-
Raymond Hawkins: Wow. All from space?
Doug Mohney: All from space. Because you’ve got the radar satellite, you’ve got an optical imaging satellite, you got an RF satellite that’s listening for radio signals, and then you’ve got a fourth pair of satellites that are looking to see if that boat is transmitting its transponder signal. And all this is automated via AI. And I mean there’ll be alerts sent out, somebody will get alerts and at a certain level of activity, that human being will get involved and they’ll basically take the data, the information and call the authorities and going, “Hey, we got some something that we think’s going down here. Can you send somebody out to drive out there or fly over there and see if there’s stuff.”
Raymond Hawkins: What a great real-world example.
Doug Mohney: And it-
Raymond Hawkins: Pipeline security.
Doug Mohney: And not only that, but the fascinating thing here is that, I mean if you take a step back, it’s a beautiful example but it’s also beautiful use case on you’re doing multiple source information, you’re using AI or machine learning to listen for or look for activity and process the imagery to actually look for a boat, look for barge, and you’re using AI basically to walk through that. It’s all machine learning, it’s all AI that’s collecting the information up until the point where there’s an email going out to the Coast Guard, the local Coast Guard in Nigeria or the local Customs agency in Nigeria going, “Hey, there’s theft here. We think there’s theft here or is the evidence we have.”
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. A fascinating example.
Doug Mohney: Yeah.
Raymond Hawkins: Data in space, saving pipelines everywhere.
Doug Mohney: Well, I mean, but if we throw out the pipeline example, we’re only scratching the surface of what’s going on. We can take multiple sources of data and mash it and apply it. I mean this is equally applicable for looking at, after a hurricane you can fly out and look at what infrastructure’s been damaged using satellite imagery, if you’re getting satellite imagery every couple of hours, you can fly out and see what telephone poles are down or where the damage is in specific areas.
Doug Mohney: Insurance companies are going to be tapping into this information. Rather than send out agents, they’ll be able to do a before and after picture. They’ll have imagery on file pre hurricane, and then they’ll be able to take imagery post hurricane, or post other natural disaster event, and compare the two and go, “Aha, okay, these buildings are a total loss. We just need to write checks and not send anybody out there. And then these buildings, we need to send out an agent to evaluate to see if they can salvage.” But I mean again, there’s a lot of information that you can collect from the sky and we’re just tapping into the individual bits and pieces of it and the more information you get, you can meld them together like the pipeline example in order to do useful work.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. Fascinating stuff. Well Doug, this has been super helpful. We really, really appreciate you joining us. Thank you for getting on the podcast and talking about space and talking about data in space, and look forward to seeing as things continue to change, as we get more constellations and more applications, and it continues to change. I go back to the first time we broke the sound barrier and remember that and now think about where we are. It’s been an incredible journey for what we do up there.
Doug Mohney: Well, I think the thing that people lose track of is, I’ll give you my two examples here. The SpaceX launch that was done over the summer, the satellites on order collecting multiple terabytes of information a day, multiple terabytes of information per day. So that means that by the end of the year, you’ve added a petabyte plus of useful information, and that only increases over time. That’s just one launch. And as people go from dozens of satellites in orbit to hundreds of satellites in orbit, you get this dramatic scale of information we’re going to be able to collect about the rest of the world. It’s going to be very cool.
Raymond Hawkins: Well, I’ll just say this, as a guy who builds warehouses for data, the fact that we’re collecting data from space is a good thing for me. So I’m happy about that.
Doug Mohney: Yeah. You’re going to… Well, what’s fun too about that is that some of your customers will start tapping into that data, and all of a sudden it’ll be like, “Oh, we need to buy more disc space,” or, “We need to build a hyper-scalable AI in order to process this information.” So you get a couple of those customers and you’ll need a couple more warehouses plus.
Raymond Hawkins: Thank goodness. All right. Parting question. Favorite Star Wars and favorite Star Trek episode. And I say episode, of course, I mean the TV show. So, favorite TV episode and favorite Star Wars movie.
Doug Mohney: Okay. You’re hurting me real bad. All right. We’re going to go with Star Wars first. You have to go with the original, the original Luke Skywalker Han Solo, because that set the universe, that set the character.
Raymond Hawkins: Hear hear. Absolutely number one.
Doug Mohney: And it was a beautiful genre because it laid the foundation for everything and just blew everybody’s mind.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. Yeah.
Doug Mohney: Star Trek is a lot harder because, are you talking original series? Are you talking TNG? Are you talking Discovery?
Raymond Hawkins: So there’s all, I’m going with the three years on television, original series, William Shatner, best episode and Shatner’s three years on TV and there’s several to choose from.
Doug Mohney: I know, and it’s really hard. I mean Edge of Tomorrow probably I’d say-
Raymond Hawkins: That one’s good.
Doug Mohney: … Edge of Tomorrow and I can’t remember the name of it. The one with Khan.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah.
Doug Mohney: And I can’t… Space Seed. Was it Space Seed?
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah. Yeah, you got me on the name, and I’m not going to remember. The one with President Lincoln where the guy can make Shatner’s voice and Spock’s dying and they have multiple historical characters, I can’t remember that episode. That’s one of my favorites. I can’t remember the name of the episode, but love the original Star Trek.
Doug Mohney: Yeah, definitely. But we could spend another half hour talking about all the-
Raymond Hawkins: We’ll have a whole episode just on Star Trek.
Doug Mohney: [crosstalk 00:46:48].
Raymond Hawkins: We can come back and just do Star Trek.
Doug Mohney: I’m going to throw out, as my parting thought on your question that I have a really soft spot for Lower Decks because it’s funny as hell.
Raymond Hawkins: Yeah, that’s good.
Doug Mohney: I really like Lower Decks.
Raymond Hawkins: I watched Star Trek as a kid and thought, “What are they doing walking around with these things that they talk into and they can hear other people?” There you go.
Doug Mohney: And now-
Raymond Hawkins: Doug, thank you so much for joining. That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Live long and prosper.
Doug Mohney: All right.
Raymond Hawkins: Good stuff. Thank you, Doug. We appreciate you joining us.
Raymond Hawkins: (Silence).