Created in 2015 in Rennes, Unseenlabs has designed BRO-1, a nano-satellite of less than 10 kg full of electronics, with mission of monitoring the oceans from space to track down rogue vessels. The antenna on board this small satellite as large as a shoebox, detects and geolocates signals and electromagnetic waves transmitted by ships, even when they cut off their AIS (Automatic Identification System) beacon. It can therefore locate all boats, especially non-cooperative entities sailing the seas for illegal reasons: illegal fishing, degassing or maritime piracy.
Although the use of nano-satellites is not new, since the first were sent into space about twenty years ago and they are now several hundred above our heads, the Unseenlabs satellite represents a new generation of nano-satellites equipped with a new type of sensor. Added to existing devices such as radars or AIS beacons, this technology collects information that did not exist until now.
As Jonathan Galic, co-founder of Unseenlabs, explains, maritime surveillance from space is today carried out with radar and optical satellites that cover small areas and require a large number of trained image analysis personnel, as well as satellites capable of recovering the positions of ships via their AIS beacon. Unseenlabs’ signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites can monitor in near real time, with fewer personnel and investment, with no need for a positioning beacon to be present on board ships. Indeed, they cost less to put into orbit, since they take up less space as secondary passengers in launch rockets. Unseenlabs is thus paving the way for a new commercial maritime surveillance service with very high added value. It involves detection methods at the service of States for civilian traffic in their waters. Unseenlabs is therefore targeting government markets such as national navies, customs, intelligence services, but also insurers, shipowners, NGO, oil groups or satellite data operators, to whom they will sell the data collected by their nano-satellites. The company will not market its monitoring system, simply the data from it.
Putting into orbit
This summer, Unseenlabs successfully put its first nano-satellite into orbit at an altitude of 550 km from a launch pad in New Zealand with the Electron launcher from the US firm Rocketlab. This launch into orbit is only a first step for Unseenlabs, which is aiming ultimately for about thirty satellites around the Earth, capable of monitoring a same point in near real time. The company will consolidate its constellation as early as 2020.
In terms of contract, Unseenlabs says that several players have already committed to long-term contracts on its commercial service, which has been operational since October 2019. These players seem to favour a French solution, whereas only the American HawkEye360, with $100M financing notably from Airbus, offers a similar service to date.
Regional and national support
In addition, the technology of Unseenlabs has already won over the Ministry of Armed Forces, which granted it €7.5M in 2018 from its Definvest managed by Bpifrance and the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA), with the participation of the company Hemeria and the Bretagne regional fund Breizh Up. It can use the funds raised to roll out its solution and provide the first commercial data to its customers in the wake of the first launch into orbit.
The director indicates that 90% of goods consumed are transported by sea and one fifth of the fish we eat comes from illegal fishing. Unseenlabs estimates the civil maritime surveillance market at 200 or 300 million euros and is targeting a turnover of €8 to 10M by 2021.
Supported by Le Poool (formerly Rennes Atalante), Unseenlabs is also incorporated into the Morespace booster alongside e-Odyn, Hytech Imaging and CLS. The Booster is the result of an initiative by Cospace (State Industry Space Consultation Committee) which aims to stimulate innovation and economic development through the propagation of a particular theme through digital technology and space. In Brest, the Mer Bretagne Atlantique hub coordinates the boosted on the sea theme in partnership with the Images & Réseaux cluster, the Bretagne Remote Sensing Scientific Interest Group (GIS BRETEL), the French Tech Brest Tech+ hub and the Technological Transfer Accelerator Company (SATT) Ouest Valorisation. Unseenlabs has also been a member of the European Space Agency’s incubator, in association with CNES*, ESA BIC Nord de France, since September 2019.
*National Centre for Space Studies