Interview: Audacy aspires to be the ‘telco’ for spacecraft

The Audacy Singapore team. All images in this article courtesy of Audacy.

Audacy, a space communications service provider, is working towards developing a space-based data relay system using three Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites (scheduled to launch in 2019) and two ground stations. Based in San Francisco, the company recently opened its second office in Singapore, where one of its ground stations will be located.

Audacy has completed the Critical Design Review of Audacy’s 7-meter teleport gateway antennas, which will serve as the main gateways for Audacy’s medium Earth orbit data relay satellite constellation. They also slew fast enough to track objects in low Earth orbit (LEO), enabling direct connectivity with Audacy customers orbiting anywhere from LEO to lunar distance.

The first teleport will come online in the San Francisco Bay Area later this year, followed by a second unit in Singapore in early 2019.

Both teleports will also provide tracking and communications services for demonstration missions scheduled for launch this year, and eventually each gateway location will support up to 6 teleport antennas serving near- and deep-space missions.

SpaceTech Asia speaks to Audacy’s Co-founder and CEO Ralph Ewig and its Singapore team — Youmi Sa (Head of International Development) and Amanda Chia (Head of Sales) — to find out more about Audacy and its plans for 2018.

Why and how did you decide to start Audacy?

Ralph: My own personal story led to the creation of Audacy. I worked at SpaceX for about 3.5 years, and there I was a Mission Operations Engineer; I was one of the guys in the Mission Control Room who controls the Dragon spacecraft as it goes to the International Space Station (ISS). And my particular role was in the area of communications, between Dragon and the space station, and the network of ground stations and operations centers both for SpaceX and for NASA.

Because Dragon flying to the ISS was a NASA contract, we had access to an existing satellite relay network that NASA built in the 1970s. It’s called TDRS (Tracking and Data Relay System). And I saw the contrast between being able to use a relay network versus using ground stations. Right now, everybody in the industry has ground stations — it made so much sense to use a relay network. I thought, “This is brilliant, everybody should do this. Why doesn’t everybody do this?” And the answer at the time was, there was nothing like that for commercial use.

Audacy’s satellite deployment architecture.

That was about six years ago, so the market was still a little soft at the time — there wasn’t a huge demand for it. And at the same time, the NASA system was really built for the Space Station and Space Shuttle, two very large platforms. But all the activity in commercial space now is in very small satellites. It’s very challenging for small satellites to make use of that system because of the power demands and it’s a difficult solution for any commercial user.

I thought, “Maybe I can build a commercial solution” like NASA’s TDRS, but for the commercial market, and able to serve even very small cubesat platforms. So that was the idea.

How does the Audacy system work?

Ralph: The way the system works is, there’re four main components to it. One is the relay satellites — those are three satellites we’ll place into a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO). These are typical telecommunication satellites.

The second part is the ground stations. So we have two teleports we’re planning — the first one at the San Francisco Bay Area, the second one at Singapore.

The third piece is what we call the client terminal. You can think of it as the “phone” that our customers have to install on their satellite to use our network. It’s a small radio, paired with an antenna or multiple antennas, which we developed ourselves. There was nothing like it in the market. We’re flying our first prototype version of that in space in the next couple of months.

And the last piece is software – there’s always a software component to tie everything together.

But essentially, as a company, we are not a hardware company. We don’t sell products. We just do it to enable us to sell our service. So, like for example a telco, we’ll give you a free phone if you buy our product.

What are some of Audacy’s plans for 2018?

Ralph: In the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ll have an intermediate size ground station — a 2.5 m reflector which we are installing in June. That’s coming up very soon to support our first demonstration mission this year.

The big teleport, which is the 7 metre reflectors – the first one in the San Francisco Bay Area gets delivered in September, and the second one, in Singapore, gets delivered in February next year.

We’re looking at other locations as a potential diversity site, because it rains a lot in Singapore and the frequencies we operate in are very high frequencies. We haven’t decided where to put that yet. It could be anywhere in the general location around Singapore. It could be Western Australia, it could be Malaysia, it could be Indonesia.

Audacy’s Client Terminal

Also, we’re deploying a terminal for Audacy on the ISS in October. The Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) asked us, could we be like an Internet Service Provider on the ISS. So the first terminal will be deployed in partnership with CASIS. They did give us a grant to do this, so they’re paying for the installation, and we just provide the hardware. It will be installed in the NanoRacks External Payload Platform — anybody who’s also on the same platform can use our service, and we have one paying customer so far.

Are there any vertical-specific markets that Audacy appeals to?

Ralph: Launch vehicles is a good one. Another is IoT constellations. For them, we’re very attractive, because they can use our relay constellation as replacement for ground stations. Other customers are in Earth Observation. The main advantage we bring to them is always that you can get your information in real-time. Also, we can provide service to the further out missions, like lunar missions.

What do you think of the space industry today?

Ralph: Spaceship One was the first commercially-funded and operated spaceflight putting a human into space. When this happened and I thought, “Commercial is the way to go, it’s so much quicker, so much more interesting.” So I think that’s when Space 2.0 was kind of born, that time-frame. And it’s grown up a lot and I think the momentum is increasing.

And it’s really driven by 2 things – one is that access to space keeps getting better. It used to be very, very challenging to put anything into space. Now I can buy a launch in the order of $200,000 and put something into space, even if I’m a tiny company.

Audacy built our first satellites for our demonstration mission in our office — we have a small clean room in the office space, and people are really surprised to see this.

And it’s smaller, and access gets easier, and I think that’s really driving this phenomenal growth. I do believe it’s going to keep going.

What do you think of the Asian space industry?

Ralph: You have countries in Asia which do a great job in terms of the technology. There are great launch vehicles out of Japan that have a fantastic track record. There is really exciting progress coming out of China recently. India has made a tremendous amount of progress, they do amazing things for shoestring budgets, which is really impressive. I’m looking forward to seeing more countries participate in space applications, because the more the better.

Do you have any investment or customers from Asia?

Ralph: We have two Asian investors – one is Chinese, which is Innospring who were part of our seed round, and then we received a sizeable investment from Eight Roads, which is a Japanese venture fund under the umbrella of Fidelity. That was the largest investor in our last round. So those are our primary Asian investors for our funding so far.

Youmi: But for Series B, we are talking to investors not only in America and Europe, but also Asia. So we are talking to some Korean VCs, and Japanese conglomerates.

Amanda: In terms of our pipeline and the MoUs we’ve signed, we’ve covered more than 60% of our capacity globally, from China, Europe, and the US — but most customers are still in Europe and the US.

Do you plan to grow your operations in Singapore?

Youmi: We first opened up our Singapore office in November last year, and we have a goal to hire 100 more people in the coming 5 years. Also, we’re working with several government agencies including the EDB, IMDA, JTC, etc. The EDB especially is really supportive of the space community.

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