Looking for instant earth observation data

Looking for instant earth observation data

SAN FRANCISCO – Having focused on optical communications for more than 20 years, Hedron CEO Baris Erkmen has a clear understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented by this technology.

Since receiving his PhD in Electrical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a dissertation on optical communications, Erkmen has designed, developed, prototyped, and deployed optical technologies for space, airborne, and terrestrial applications. His career took him from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Google’s Project Loon, Facebook Connectivity Lab and Project Taara, a wireless optical extension of the fiber optic backbone of X, the research and development lab of Google parent company Alphabet.

In March 2022, Erkmen joined California-based Hedron, a startup building a space data relay network for optical and radio frequency data.

What is your role at Hedron?

CEO and CTO. We’re a fairly young company, so it’s okay to have common titles. Our mission is to build a modernized communications infrastructure for earth observation satellites. The way we communicate with our earth observation satellites is frankly archaic. We have nice instruments up there. We have consumers down here who can do an incredible amount of processing on cloud computing platforms. The line between the two is stuck in the 1960s. We’re trying to change that.

What drew you to Hedron?

What excited me about Project Taara was that it wasn’t a technical demonstration project. We needed a product, something that could be taken off the factory floor and used in the terrestrial telecoms market. Telcos are very price conscious and need good performance metrics. I’ve had the humbling experience of taking a technical prototype and turning it into a product that works well.

It was around this time that people started talking about optical connections between satellites. Having learned so much from this experience of turning a prototype into a product, I thought it wouldn’t be amazing if I could apply the same principles to a space environment. It was around this time that Hedron and my paths happened to cross.

What is unique about Hedron?

We will support automatic networking in space. We need to support multiple access [points] so that multiple satellites can communicate with the ground dish. The planning should take place in the background. Satellite operators forward their packets to a network and the network takes care of it. The data is displayed at the other end.

Terrestrial, we take that for granted. This terrestrial technology must be deployed in a space environment and has been slow to catch on. We see an opportunity in that. Optics plays a strategic role in this, but it’s not the only thing we focus on.

Technology aside, our focus is on creating a network that is modular and scalable. Nowhere in the world is the communications network a unified web of interconnected towers that collapse if one of them is knocked over. It’s seamless and everything works together. You can have 5G in a mall. You step outside, walk 100 meters and you have 3G service. This type of architecture needs to be rolled out into space.

What’s next for Hedron?

We are advancing on three fronts. We have one satellite that is in the integration phase. It’s a technology demonstrator. We’re hoping to get that up and validated over the next year, that we can do the basic technological parts of collecting data in orbit and relaying data to the ground.

Commercially, we focus on the first cluster. Think of it as rolling out cellular to a city. We have a neighborhood of earth observation satellites. If we were able to provide some connectivity in orbit, it would improve their connectivity by more than 2x and reduce their latency by more than 5x. We’re focused on understanding how this solution can help customers and if there’s a meaningful relationship to build there so we can spend the next two years building and deploying it.

Last but not least, we focus on optical communication. It is a strategic part of our infrastructure. We believe there are opportunities for disruption in the market. We focus on an internal design.

It can be difficult to transmit optical signals through the Earth’s atmosphere. How can this be resolved?

What you do on many networks where there are connections that are not reliable is rely on spatial diversity. The question then arises as to the economic viability of this solution. For example, can you afford 10 optical ground stations for one connection? The industry has some catching up to do. I’m part of the industry, so this is more self-reflection than a finger-wagging.

What do you recommend?

Ground stations need to be much more economical, robust and portable, not fixed assets like telescopes that cannot move and cost a lot of money to set up. The barrier here is the economics of ground stations and the feasibility of their placement.

I’ve done some studies myself and others have done studies showing that you need 5 to 9 times more ground stations than the number of links you want to support. They also need site diversity, they need to be more than 1,000 kilometers apart. That is solvable.

Point-to-point optical signals are harder to jam or intercept than RF signals. With spatial diversity in your ground network, data moves through terrestrial networks. Does this affect security?

I don’t think it’s fair to say that because you have fiber in the network, the network is no longer secure. If you can make security a non-issue for one segment of the network, you can focus your resources on making the other side more secure. Put all your resources to make the fiber optic part safe.

If you want real security, one of the interesting things is the fact that at optical frequencies we are able to use the quantum nature of light. While we’re just beginning to figure out how to use this, we’ve shown we can do it. Therefore, optical has operational advantages such as narrow beams and point-to-point. In the next 10 years, it also has physics-based benefits that could actually make it a whole lot safer to use.

Do you need to install optical communication stations on mountains or in the desert?

The reason for this is that the cloud probability is lower there. But no. Seattle isn’t great because it’s cloudy and rainy most of the year, but you certainly don’t have to go to the middle of the Mojave Desert to set up a ground station. There are many dry places that have good weather. And again, when you have variety, don’t count on a particular site being always available. It becomes much more manageable.

Has the war in Ukraine changed your perspective?

Commercial companies played a significant role in uncovering what is going on. But as you notice, everything is still archived. This is due to the latency. It takes tens of minutes, sometimes hours, to get this data. What happened has already happened. What you see is the wreck left behind.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could receive and act on information minutes late? This is the piece that I feel is missing. The current conflict is helping, but it hasn’t necessarily captured everyone’s imagination because what’s possible isn’t obvious yet.

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