HEO Robotics: World’s first in-orbit satellite inspection service

23 February 2022

Thinking differently is the hallmark of HEO Robotics. It is also a trait of the innovative Australian space companies that support and are supported by Australia’s space program and the unique UK-Australia Space Bridge.

Australia’s Space Program head, Enrico Palermo, says the Space Bridge would help to propel Australia’s civil space industry into its next phase of growth.

‘It will open doors to build local capability, as well as significantly boost our collaboration with the UK Space Agency,’ he says.

And it has. The Space Bridge, Austrade and the UK Department for International Trade have helped one of Australia’s most innovative space startups, HEO Robotics, to enter the UK market.

Building bridges on earth and in space

Dr William Crowe is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of HEO Robotics. The startup uses a network of high-quality cameras on 25 satellites. These cameras capture sub-0.5m resolution imagery of objects as they whizz past in nanoseconds.

Crowe explains: ‘We are the first in the world to offer an in-orbit inspection service. Our high-resolution imagery allows us to verify a satellite's identity and its status. We can report on anything from maintenance needs to alerts on space debris.’

HEO Robotics is a new company with few contacts in overseas markets. Crowe says: ‘Austrade was there for us when we needed introductions and the credibility of a government organisation.

‘Austrade was instrumental in helping us build government-to-government relationships, as well as commercial ones. I am delighted to say these are now really blossoming.

HEO Robotics opened an office in the UK in November 2021. With a HEO Robotics UK launch event in London in early December 2021, Austrade was instrumental in getting the right people in the room.

‘The Australia-UK Space Bridge is going to be key to showcase Australian capability at important events in the UK, like the Farnborough Airshow,’ says Crowe.

HEO Robotics completed a successful round of seed funding in July 2021.

‘The capital will allow us to scale our services to help monitor the 40x increase in satellite numbers to be launched over the next 10 years,’ says Crowe.

About 80% of HEO Robotics’ clients are government and 20% commercial. But that is changing. ‘Government used to be hegemonic in space. Now private industry is converting that,’ Crowe says.

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Caption: Dr William Crowe, Founder and CEO (left) and Dr Hiranya Jayakody, Founder and CTO (right).

Using existing satellites to deploy software

Crowe says startups like HEO Robotics come to the industry with fresh eyes.

‘We weren’t hampered by the baggage of 50-year-old regulations, for instance, or any outdated norms of behaviour. But neither were we supported by them.

‘We had to think about solutions differently. We had to find how to get our sensors into position at the right time and place in the Earth’s orbit to obtain the imagery we need.

‘Like many successful startups, we had to deal with so many frustrations. It was really hard. But I think we succeeded because it was really hard.’

HEO Robotics had to work out how to deploy its software into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with very little capital or a dedicated satellite. That’s where thinking about the problem ‘differently’ came in.

Crowe was thinking about how one could operate satellites in such a way as to get different information from them. ‘How do you get multiple sensors into the right place at the right time?’ He and co-founder and CTO, Dr Hiranya Jayakody, thought about the problem as a network – like the internet - rather than a series of stand-alone platforms.

The ‘ah ha’ moment came when the founders realised they could provide income to an existing satellite in its ‘down-time’. HEO Robotics could work perfectly well in the dark and over oceans. This was the answer to ‘affordability’, as satellites almost exclusively serve clients over land and in daylight. The team realised they could be as helpful to existing satellites, as the existing satellites could be helpful to them.

Using technology to care for space

HEO Robotics’ guiding principles are to use technology to help humanity and care for the space environment.  

Without having to bear the brunt of the cost of setting up infrastructure, that is going for infrastructure-light, like the internet, recent movers in space like HEO Robotics, are likely to win.

Crowe says one of the key lessons he learned when joining a NSW Government delegation to Silicon Valley in 2018, was that the rate of learning is what matters. In its 18 months of operation the team has been learning exponentially and growing at the same rate.

‘The vastness of space is really hard to comprehend,’ explains Crowe. ‘A lot of the stars we see are larger than our sun, but we only see them as a pixel. Our software means we can get really close to objects, calculate their trajectories and take high-quality high-resolution photos.’  

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