How HEO Robotics Are Using Nanosatellites To Monitor Space Debris And Asteroids
Dr. William Crowe
Tell us your background and about HEO Robotics
I have been looking at asteroid mining since 2009, when I wanted to understand what would transform the space industry. After finishing a research project on the topic, I concluded that the capital to get started was too great for anyone to invest in, so I started a regular career as an engineering project manager.
I was surprised and excited when suddenly Planetary Resources appeared out of nowhere, followed by some of the heroes that I had researched starting Deep Space Industries. This opened my eyes on how investment could work and what industries were possible.
To support these and other space mining companies, I left industry and entered academia. Research during the PhD exposed how many inefficiencies existed in space exploration and how new data trends could transform the way we think about conducting exploration.
HEO (High Earth Orbit) Robotics takes images of objects in space, from space, meaning we capture high resolution imagery. This means that we will be able to understand satellite health, mineralogy of close-passing asteroids and even take movie-quality video of space-walks or other exciting events.
Because space is so large, and the volume increases rapidly as you move away from Earth, we have developed swarm methodology to allow a small and highly distributed constellation of nanostellites to cover a huge volume and image objects when and where needed.
We believe that this will transform how satellite operators and insurance companies assess satellite health, how we understand the distribution of space junk and how nations and organisations conduct space exploration.
How did the idea for HEO Robotics come about and what was it like getting started?
The idea behind HEO Robotics formed when I was trying to attend the International Astronautical Congress (where Elon Musk regularly unveils his big future space plans). The only way to attend was by winning a scholarship so I hatched an idea to write a paper that would win the “Move an Asteroid” competition. The idea was to focus attention on getting asteroid mission costs below $1 million (USD) by visiting those asteroids that pass closer than the Moon.
We will be able to understand satellite health, mineralogy of close-passing asteroids and even take movie-quality video of space-walks or other exciting events.
To date, there have been only thirteen asteroid exploration missions costing in excess of $500 million per asteroid. My supervisors were only tentatively supportive, as the concept seemed distractive to them. That changed when I won the competition and traveled to Israel where the conference was held.
After that experience, I had only the thought of commercializing the concept and went on to flesh it out further during my PhD. In 2016, I started the company with three others, but the timing proved wrong with me still writing my PhD and the hype around asteroid mining distorting the market. We decided to hibernate and two of the team left.
At the end of 2017, my co-founder and I decided to reboot and went through an accelerator at our university. We shifted the focus to our core IP - our swarm architecture and control which we called the “Orbital Flownet” - and quickly found that there were urgent applications to space debris and inspecting damaged satellites. We still believe that asteroid investigation is critical and that we have the best strategy in the world to address that need, but we are creating value in parallel applications to get there.
How did you fund the company initially?
We initially ran on our own time and took a small amount of capital from a Kickstarter campaign. This allowed us to start an “Asteroid Alert Email” service which is still running today (you can subscribe here). We then took a small "friends and family" round of investment which we leveraged to win a government grant and a startup accelerator grant.
This helped us perform rapid customer discovery and led us to win our first contracts. Running in this way was pretty tough at first but it became easier every month, as we saw greater levels of funds roll in and were able to prove out more and more of our business.
Why is the problem you are solving important and how does it help human space exploration?
There is a growing problem with space debris: as more satellites are launched, satellite complexity increases and the length of technology cycles is reduced. The problem is that more of these satellites are failing in orbit and sometimes violently, spewing out new and un-trackable debris.
We help satellite operators monitor their assets with our remote and manoeuvrable nanosatellite based cameras, to help them prevent accidents and optimize their satellite life. We believe that this kind of satellite management will become a critical part of the on-orbit servicing and repair economy that will ultimately allow in-space manufacturing.
This will bring the cost of an asteroid exploration mission down to $1-$2 million, far less than the average of more than $500 million per asteroid spent on these types of mission today.
Of course, when you have remote and manoeuvrable cameras looking at satellites in GEO, they can also be deployed to look at close-passing asteroids. For example, the asteroid Apophis will pass close to GEO in 2029 and we’ll be able to send our nanosatellites to within a few kilometres of the asteroid as it passes by.
This will bring the cost of an asteroid exploration mission down to $1-$2 million, far less than the average of more than $500 million per asteroid spent on these types of mission today. We’re really excited about the potential of these low-cost missions to change our understanding of off-Earth minerals and provide the raw material for in-space manufacture.
What are some achievements you're proud of?
We completed our first paid capability demonstration this year which we were very excited about. This was a trial conducted by the Australian Air Force where they took us to the Australian desert, asked us to set up a remote mission control centre and simulate our inspection capability for Australian satellites.
This was a real opportunity to test different swarm configurations with a customer and provided us with feedback on how to tweak our deployment software before we roll it out on in-space hardware.
Also, along our journey, we’ve been a part of the changing space landscape in Australia. We’ve seen the Australian Space Agency formed and contributed to their policy formation. We’ve seen other space companies thrive as well and the industry is growing together.
What have been some of your biggest challenges? How did you overcome them?
We had a huge problem finding product market fit especially considering the hype around asteroid mining when we started the company. This led to changes in the founding team and a lack of understanding on which direction to take. To fix this, we first had a serious look at our motivations and two of the four founding members decided it wasn’t for them.
Positively, my co-founder Hiranya and I really understood where our passions lie and why we sought to set up a company. This has kept driving us forward at a steady pace while the world of asteroid mining collapsed around us and allowed us to focus on getting things right on a small scale before ramping up to larger projects.
We had a serious look at our motivations and two of the four founding members decided it wasn’t for them.
A very specific example of this renewed focus is our obsession with collecting data to assist our customers. We’ve had some pretty amazing feedback from customers with this new focus. We’re able to offer insights that they are not even aware of and show the impact of changing their satellite operating mindset to improve their business.
What are exciting milestones coming up for HEO Robotics?
Over the next six months, we are working on our first demonstration mission which we hope to share more about with the public soon! We’ll also be changing our web presence and how customers can understand our pricing and schedule. Finally, we’ll have a white-paper release covering how we believe asteroid exploration and mineral mapping should be conducted.
Over the next one to two years, we will be scaling our constellation to start providing critical data to our customers about their satellites.
What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?
When we started the company, we thought the only way to achieve our goals and serve our customers was to seek venture financing. So we invested a lot of time into framing our business in a way that we hoped would excite VCs. If I had my time again, I would simply keep pushing ahead with our customer plans rather than immediately put time into investor relations.
Often, we’ve found that our customers are the most willing to give us early money because they understand that we are creating something really valuable for them.
What we’ve found with all of our suppliers is that they can work to our timeline and I believe that same ethos should be applied to capital. Put work into serving your customers and the capital will be ready when you are. Often, we’ve found that our customers are the most willing to give us early money because they understand that we are creating something really valuable for them.
How can the public support you with your mission?
We’d love for more people to share in our journey! The best way to do that is follow our update emails (sign up at www.heo-robotics.com) or on social media (links below).
Lastly, where can people find out more about you and HEO Robotics?
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