Funding for the Department of Defense’s innovation arm could more than double in 2019 — but three Colorado Springs tech companies are seeing benefits long before that money lands.
Rim Technologies, Aspen Logix and Spectrabotics have teamed up to create SpaceBook in response to a Commercial Solutions Opening from the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), and it’s already attracting international interest.
SpaceBook is a new platform that aims to make all space data — commercial, foreign, civil, U.S. government — available for users to protect their satellites and space assets. It crowd-sources space data and makes it available for use in advanced analytics built on the SpaceBook platform, or for members to download into their own systems. It means users can access data far beyond their current architectures and capabilities.
“As we have more commercial assets in space, people who have a space vehicle, a satellite, want to know that their asset is safe,” RIMTECH CEO Sara Kinney explained. “It’s millions of dollars to launch and to maintain that. Being able to get data from other providers or turn their vehicle into a sensor is a way that they can monetize their platform and make commercial assets a moneymaker as well, in addition to their core mission.”
Users can choose to earn money by sharing their data and tools with others while retaining ownership of them. “It’s almost like a fingerprint on their data, so wherever their tools and their data travel in the world, it’s marked as theirs and they get credit for it,” Kinney said.
They can also use crowd-sourced sensor and performance data to validate their own data using SpaceBook’s nontraditional pre-processing algorithms, and to check the fidelity of other people’s data using a known standard.
And they can use advanced analytics on SpaceBook to monitor their space vehicles, answering questions like, “Are you falling out of your orbit? Do you have debris or might there be a collision?” Kinney said.
Silos in space
“Space, like most industries, is very siloed,” said Spectrabotics CEO Tim Haynie. “We have these hugely expensive space systems and sensor programs for monitoring conditions, and yet the data remains locked away either because of the network it’s on, the classification of the data, who owns the data, or even because the source is an amateur, probably with a Ph.D. in a particular discipline,” Haynie said in an email. “These silos prevent us from taking advantage of what we can learn when we integrate the data sources. This integration will lead to advanced warnings about space weather effects, system anomalies, more accurate locations of satellites, and most importantly, how [we can] get more services for less costs.”
Spectrabotics focuses on what happens when all these data sets are integrated, he said, and how people can make smarter decisions by having the most complete and accurate data.
It was the DIUx challenge that brought the three companies together on the SpaceBook project.
“We actually took components of other projects that we had worked on … and it was a little bit like stone soup, where you say, ‘Hey, we don’t have the solution to this whole thing, but if I call my space-nerd friend, they’re going to bring a piece of the solution.’ And that’s really what happened here,” Kinney said.
“It really epitomized the idea of a very lean rapid innovation project and process,” Aspen Logix founder and CEO Randel Castleberry said. “Over a period of a week or two or three it just came together… . That collaborative atmosphere of trust and very high competence, I think really helped.”
New moves in acquisition
DIUx uses a nontraditional type of acquisition for the DoD, focused on harnessing innovative solutions to defense challenges and bringing commercial technologies to the military.
It works like this: DIUx announces a Commercial Solutions Opening — a broad challenge, unlike the traditional, highly defined acquisition — and businesses come up with ways of solving the problem. DIUx then evaluates each proposal on commercial viability and value to the mission.
DIUx invited the SpaceBook tech team to pitch the SpaceBook solution for Space Situational Awareness Battle Management Command and Control (SSA/BMC2) in December, Kinney said. She described the opportunity to speak with a cross-domain team of experts at the DIUx pitch as “an amazing win” in itself.
Success with DIUx would accelerate SpaceBook significantly.
“Having the government as a user would certainly be a benefit to all those who’ve shown interest in sharing data and tools in order to get better space situational awareness data and reduce those costs,” Kinney said.
DIUx boosts business
DIUx can be helpful to small, innovative companies, Haynie said, because “innovation is hard and it’s risky for most businesses.
“Small, flexible, risk-taking companies most often exist because someone believed there was a better way to solve a hard problem and many times they actually can solve the problem … . Government is the opposite; it moves slowly, it doesn’t like to take risks with scant taxpayer dollars, and the reliance on contractor support often locks in legacy systems for years.
“DIUx in theory is a great venue to connect people who understand government problems and requirements with people like us who have no interest in getting mired in the bureaucracy and are too busy chasing cutting-edge technologies to commit to working backwards.”
Regardless of whether it’s awarded an official contract under DIUx, Kinney said, SpaceBook is going ahead.
“Our solution will be moving forward to mission due to the overall customer traction commercially, with research and academic partners and internationally,” she said, adding that the team has had calls about SpaceBook from NATO countries, and several follow-up meetings with government customer groups.
“SpaceBook is a viable commercial concept outside of DIUx because the global commercial space market is far bigger than what the U.S. government manages,” Haynie said. “We’re offering the U.S. government the opportunity of being an early investor in the service, because we believe their presence will spur global interest faster. The faster we get quality data, the sooner we can allow professionals to build innovative and problem-solving applications using highly diverse and disparate data from global sources.
“Then, the true benefits of SpaceBook start to return value as we begin to solve harder problems, make more accurate predictions, and drive down the cost of space services.”
“Data is very frustrating and expensive to get,” Kinney said. “Space data is big. And there are a lot of algorithms used and there are policies to limit exchange of data, especially if it could potentially be a weapon, and there are certain [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] restrictions. We navigate all those political boundaries by using geographic node architecture so we know where data’s coming from and to, and what we can and can’t exchange, and our preprocessing helps us with that.
“So folks can really not just get data, but knowledge.”
SpaceBook’s beta version goes live in March. A demonstration version can be seen at spacebook.world.