Pixxel aiming big to put India on the global space map, says Awais Ahmed, Founder and CEO

By: |
May 20, 2020 8:43 PM

Over the past year, Pixxel has signed MOUs with organisations that have the need for satellite imagery around the globe.

Awais Ahmed - Founder & CEO, Pixxel and Kshitij Khandelwal (L to R)Awais Ahmed – Founder & CEO, Pixxel and Kshitij Khandelwal (L to R)

Pixxel, a space-tech startup founded by BITS Pilani graduates Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal, are building a constellation of nano-satellites to provide global, real-time and affordable satellite imagery. The startup which has tied up with companies like Maxar, Skymet Weather feels that the imagery will help in various sectors including oil & gas, agriculture and disaster management, etc. The company is the only startup from Asia to be selected for the first batch of 10 startups in Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator in Los Angeles. Pixxel aims to launch their satellite by September/October 2020 and has plans to put up 12 microsatellites in 2021 and another 12 by mid-2022. Awais Ahmed – Founder and CEO, Pixxel, interacts with Huma Siddiqui. Following are excerpts:

What has been your journey so far? Why did you choose space as a sector to venture in the first place?

Since childhood, my friend Kshitij and I were both fascinated with space and technology. Later, we met in BITS Pilani, became friends and were also part of a team called ‘Hyperloop India’. I was one of the founding members of this team. The team outpaced their growth expectations. Students from different BITS campuses were coming together and they were interacting with pioneers like ‘SpaceX’ (a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company headquartered in Hawthorne, California. It was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars). In 2017, this team presented a working Hyperloop pod prototype to Elon Musk at the SpaceX headquarters in LA. Pixxel was the only Indian and one of the two Asian finalist teams of the 24 finalist teams among the 2500 that had applied globally, at the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.

Pixxel’s idea germinated around May 2018 when two 20-year-old space enthusiasts with the aim of building a more sustainable world, both here on earth and beyond, came together to participate in the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE Competition.

We both grew up in small towns, had first hand witnessed the problems the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ agenda intended to solve — rapidly growing populations, not enough output from the available arable land, significant water stress conditions, and global warming among others. As engineering students, the XPRIZE was an opportunity for us to make an effort to tackle some of these problems using technology.

We started with building AI models that could take in terabytes of satellite imagery and extract actionable insights and patterns from that data to help tackle problems in agriculture, predict yields and track the spread of certain crop pests and diseases, detect illegal mining, predict and monitor natural disasters and forest fires among other pressing problems. But there was a problem. The satellite imagery of the earth that was freely available for analysis in most cases were years old. And that was important because we couldn’t fix what we couldn’t see, and to solve all these problems, one needed regular and up-to-date data. And even the data that was current was not rich enough or detailed enough for a lot of these use cases.

To validate whether this was an actual problem that was being faced by people all around the world, we reached out to scores of companies in Europe and the US that analysed satellite imagery to provide insights. With an almost unanimous response that there was indeed a lack of information-rich space imagery, and that they would be willing to pay for the data should Pixxel provide it, we realised that there was an emerging market for the new kind of satellite imagery we wanted to provide.

The Finance Minister recently announced strategic measures for private space players in the country. What are your thoughts on this?

The announcement by the Finance Minister to open up the space sector for private industry is a fabulous first step and very much in the right direction. It now needs to be seen how the government goes about in implementing its will to create a level playing field. The indications from the press conference are very reassuring. Particular references to utilizing ISRO’s world-class infrastructure (testing and manufacturing facilities) for the private sector can go a long way in saving unnecessary costs and making the industry more competitive.

This will also mean that a lot of space-grade material manufacturing processes that are not in the country right now such as multilayer thermal insulations, solar panels and batteries that were majorly procured from abroad will now see localisation due to the emergence of more domestic space firms. More significantly, the announcement on future projects for planetary exploration is very important towards building India’s very own Maxars, SpaceXs and Rocket Labs. On the whole, it is a great first step that needs to be followed up by an independent regulatory authority executing on the vision and making sure these landmark announcements are realised.

How are you running your business operations at the moment? Any new projects you are working on?

Over the past year, Pixxel has signed MOUs with organisations that have the need for satellite imagery around the globe. We are already working with a couple of Indian agri-tech companies to start pilot testing of data.

The launch of the first satellite is booked for later this year from Russia on a Soyuz rocket (pushed from July due to COVID). Ground station partnership is already in place with an Italian service provider ‘Leaf Space’ to beam down large amounts of data. We also have multiple downstream users of data ready to buy the imagery once it starts beaming down.

Currently, the plan is to achieve the mission of building and launching a constellation of the world’s most advanced earth imaging satellites that can beam down data at a level of detail that hasn’t been attempted before. Once the first satellite is done and perfected, we will develop newer satellites rapidly within the gap of 3- 6 months. By the end of 2022, Pixxel’s first constellation will be complete which will keep on expanding depending on customers’ needs.

Specifically, with regards to COVID, the testing of the first satellite has come to a halt due to the lockdown. However, the team is continuing to work on the business aspects as well as the designs of the future satellites that will follow the first launch. Apart from the delay in the launch from July 2020 to later this year, the team has continued to work from home without stopping on other aspects of the work.

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