Aerospace startup Albedo develops high-res visible, thermal images

The startup satellite company Albedo is going low to go high.

The company has developed technology that takes high-resolution visible and thermal imagery on one platform by flying low-orbit satellites.

Albedo co-founder and CEO Topher Haddad said the Broomfield-based company’s technology offers higher-resolution images than what’s currently available. And Albedo is the only satellite company that combines visible and thermal infrared imagery, which provides more detailed data, he said.

Flying the satellites in what’s called “very low Earth orbit” brings down the cost for commercial customers exponentially because Albedo can use smaller telescopes.

The company has opened a 10,000-square-foot plant in Broomfield to build and test the satellites.

“We started in November 2020. We were one of the pandemic-born startups,” Haddad said.

Albedo has about 40 employees. “We’ve been hiring really fast. We started the year in the low 20s and we’re still kind of growing at that pace,” Haddad said.

The company is working on its core technology while also building its first satellite. Albedo plans its first launch for early 2025.

Haddad, who previously worked for Lockheed Martin, said he and others realized how much of a demand there was for a service that could produce high-quality, sharp images at affordable prices. Those could be pictures for insurance companies, agriculture, local governments and power utilities.

Albedo is also focused on the national security applications of its technology.

Retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Bob Sharp, a former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, is on Albedo’s strategic advisory board. He said the uses for the company’s type of capability “are limitless.”

“I’m excited to see the tremendous progress that Albedo is making towards their quest to provide rapid delivery and accessibility to the highest resolution satellite imagery to date,” Sharp said in an email.

A major milestone for Albedo was getting approval in 2021 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a license to sell satellite imagery at a resolution of 10 centimeters per pixel.

“Commercial remote sensing has always been regulated by NOAA. Previously there were limitations on the resolution you could sell commercially due to national security concerns,” Haddad said. “If you’re selling it commercially, it could get in the hands of the wrong people and reveal information that’s sensitive to our national security.”

The U.S. Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, updated the regulations in 2020 to ease restrictions. Haddad said foreign companies, which didn’t face the same constraints, were starting to surpass U.S. companies.

“A lot of industry was like, hey, we need to maintain our competitiveness in the U.S. Let’s figure out a framework that still covers national security concerns but isn’t just a blanket you can’t sell past this resolution,” Haddad said.

Because no other companies were using technology at the 10-centimeter resolution, which is much more granular, Albedo had to go through a more thorough review to get a license. Haddad said the company’s images are at a resolution nine times higher than what other companies are supplying.

Albedo’s thermal images are also at a higher resolution than other other technology on the market, Haddad said.

The startup has raised a total of $62 million. Haddad said Albedo raised $48 million in a Series A round of funding in 2022. The fundraising was led by Shield Capital and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, founded by Bill Gates and focused on renewable energy and climate change.

Climate change is one of the areas Albedo is focused on, too. An example of a benefit of coupling visible and thermal energy is being able to measure the heat signature of a power plant and calculate the carbon emissions.

Commercial uses of the technology include supplying images for property insurance assessments and agriculture. Haddad said the thermal capability provides more information about what kind of materials a house is made of.

In the case of agriculture, the satellite can provide information about diseases in crops, soil moisture and optimizing irrigation.

Albedo’s satellites will fly below what’s considered low Earth orbit, which is 1,200 miles or less. Very low Earth orbit is about 280 miles in altitude. Albedo’s satellite will be about the size of a full-size refrigerator or a washer-dryer stack.

To get the same resolution in the images at a higher altitude, the satellite would have to be about the size of a school bus to carry a larger telescope, Haddad said.

Albedo has a hub in Austin, Texas, but its main location is Broomfield. Haddad said. The company considered locating in Los Angeles, but decided on Colorado.

“There’s a really strong pool in Denver for space talent, both on the new space side and the kind of traditional aerospace side,” Haddad said.

Some of Albedo’s employees were already living in the Denver area. Costs were lower than in Los Angeles. “Denver was the right fit for us,” Haddad said.

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