Bill Gates, Airbus and SoftBank invest in satellite video startup that wants to help us ‘see and understand the Earth live and unfiltered’

Airbus telecom satellite

Airbus telecom satellite
Bill Gates, Airbus and SoftBank invest in satellite video startup that wants to help us ‘see and understand the Earth live and unfiltered’

A graphic shows the preliminary design for satellites that Airbus is manufacturing for OneWeb. EarthNow plans to use a modified version of the same platform to beam real-time video down to Earth. (C3 Creative Code and Content GmbH Photo via Airbus)

The latest spinout from Intellectual Ventures, EarthNow, says it’s coming out of stealth mode with backing from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and other high-profile investors.

Bellevue, Wash.-based EarthNow aims to operate a fleet of small satellites that will send continuous real-time video views of our planet from Earth orbit. The satellites will be modified versions of the spacecraft that Airbus is building for the OneWeb broadband internet satellite constellation.

In addition to Gates, EarthNow’s investors include Airbus, OneWeb founder and executive chairman Greg Wyler and Japan’s SoftBank Group, the startup said today in a news release. The amount of funding was undisclosed, but for what it’s worth, SoftBank made a billion-dollar investment in OneWeb back in 2016.

The funding will be used primarily to mature the overall design for the Earth observation system, EarthNow said.

EarthNow logo

EarthNow logo

“EarthNow is ambitious and unprecedented, but our objective is simple: We want to connect you visually with Earth in real time,” said CEO Russell Hannigan, who worked at Intellectual Ventures before founding EarthNow. “We believe the ability to see and understand the Earth live and unfiltered will help all of us better appreciate and ultimately care for our one and only home.”

Wyler made clear that EarthNow would leverage the design work that’s already been done for OneWeb.

“We created the world’s first low-cost, high-performance satellites for mass production to bridge the digital divide,” he said in today’s news release. “These very same satellite features will enable EarthNow to help humanity understand and manage its impact on Earth.”

The satellites for EarthNow, like the satellites for OneWeb, would be manufactured by Airbus at facilities in France and Florida. Nicolas Chamussy, head of space systems at Airbus, said his company will “certainly be a valuable partner” for EarthNow.

EarthNow declined to provide details about its timetable for winning regulatory approvals, launching satellites or beginning commercial operations. But the fact that EarthNow is piggybacking on OneWeb’s expertise implies it won’t have to start from square one.

OneWeb aims to have its first satellites deployed next year. Hundreds of satellites, and eventually thousands, are to be put into orbit for OneWeb’s internet constellation by launch providers including Arianespace, Virgin Orbit and Blue Origin.

EarthNow said it would begin by offering commercial video and intelligent vision services to a range of government and enterprise customers.

The applications could include monitoring the seas for illegal fishing, tracking hurricanes and typhoons as they evolve, detecting forest fires when they start, providing on-demand data about crop health, and observing conflict zones and natural disasters around the world.

Russell HanniganRussell Hannigan
Russell Hannigan is founder and CEO of EarthNow. (Photo via Twitter)

EarthNow said it’s also working on mass-market video apps for tablets and mobile devices.

“We are excited by the prospect of giving everyone a stunningly beautiful real-time window on your world from space,” Hannigan said. “With EarthNow, we will all become virtual astronauts.”

EarthNow’s plan to beam continuous real-time video from space is more ambitious than the near-real-time satellite imagery services envisioned by such companies as Planet, BlackSky and Planetary Resources. But EarthNow may not have the real-time video market to itself.

SpaceX, for example, is competing with OneWeb to put an internet satellite constellation known as Starlink into low Earth orbit. Last year, SpaceX filed a trademark application for the Starlink name that suggested its constellation could be used for Earth observation and remote sensing as well.

SpaceX already has extensive satellite development facilities in Redmond, Wash., near EarthNow’s headquarters. The first prototype Starlink satellites were sent into orbit in February. And last month, the Federal Communications Commission approved SpaceX’s application for broadband internet services.

EarthNow takes its place among earlier spinouts from Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue-based technology incubator led by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold. Gates is an investor in most of those spinouts, including TerraPower, Kymeta, Echodyne, Evolv, Pivotal Commware and Sunlight Payments.

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