Early last year, the Indian Government decided to open up the space sector to private players. “The Department of Space will promote sector space activities to enable it to provide end to end space services, including building and launching of rockets and satellites as well as providing space-based services on a commercial basis,” ISRO chief K Sivan had said.
Founded by BITS Pilani alumni Kshitij Khandelwal and Awais Ahmed in March 2019, Pixxel is building a constellation of hyperspectral earth imaging satellites and analytical tools to mine insights.
The Bangalore-based startup has cut deals with multinational companies in India and overseas and is working on a smart-city project.
What does it do?
Pixxel primarily focuses on two things:
- Developing the technology and setting up the infrastructure to build a constellation of hyperspectral earth imaging satellites.
- Has an AutoML platform and is building analytics tools to mine actionable insights from data.
What’s its USP?
“Hyperspectral imagery allows us to tap into the chemical constituents of what we are imaging,” said Kshitij. The technique analyses a broad spectrum of light instead of just the primary colours (red, green and blue).
We use ground stations to communicate with the satellite. However, an optimisation problem crops up when you have multiple down stations. Pixxel uses a multi-parameter optimisation–where it identifies the best way to manage the constellation operations– to address this challenge. “We are building an in-house constellation management platform for this,” Kshitij said.
Pixxel’s constellation can provide global coverage every 24-hours, to detect, monitor and predict global phenomena.
The spactech startup is working on its hardware and software infrastructure and an internal constellation management software.
On the downstream, Pixxel builds tools and has an autoML platform to enable clients and customers to make sense of the collected data. “Clients can plug in their ML models and treat it as something like a Jupyter Notebook for geospatial data,” said Kshitij.
For now, Pixxel uses AWS and Azure tools. But the startup’s northstar is to make the offerings platform-agnostic. The team uses React and REST API in some cases, but 90 percent of the platform remains tool-agnostic.
Pixxel uses Jira for programme management and planning.
Take the case of a pipeline leakage. You can’t send humans to plug the leak if the conditions are hostile. Pixxel satellites take hyperspectral images regularly and have an entire catalogue of all images of pipelines. The firm also has ML models clients can use to identify any methane leaks.
On the other hand, from an analytical perspective, if a client wants its in-house engineers or data scientists to develop algorithms to study the data, Pixxel allows that possibility as well.
“That’s the essence of what we are trying to do — create the entire stack from space to your desktops,” Kshitij said.
Some use cases can be co-opted. For instance, if a company wants to identify plant health or moisture content, instead of putting the effort and building the entire model and deploying it, they can use Pixxel’s ready-made models.
Pixxel is also working on a couple of pilot projects in Hyderabad.
“Our goal is to create relationships with customers and cultivate them as we go towards the constellation, and make sure our data is useful for them,” Kshitij added.
Pixxel has an R&D team constantly looking at new use cases and identifying ML models customers can replicate.
Pixxel had to shelve the launch of its first satellite ‘Anand’ last February for technical reasons. “There were issues getting some GPS data and a few temperature readings were off,” said Kshitij during a conversation with Analytics India Magazine. However, the team ran trials to test the satellite software and hardware together. At present, Pixxel is using the same camera it has developed for ‘Anand’ on drones to get data for its pilot projects.
When Kshitij and Awais started the company, the first challenge the duo faced was identifying a vendor ecosystem. The only upstream vendors available in the country were ISRO suppliers. “They are very rigid and have a 1990s mindset,” Kshitij explained.
For ‘Anand’, the design was outsourced to vendors in Chennai, while the team at Pixxel focused on building the camera for the satellite. “The aim of the ‘Anand’ mission is to validate the camera,” said Kshitij.
Deploying on-ground platform-based solutions without satellite imagery was challenging. Regulatory-wise, the regime was strict back in 2019. However, last year’s announcement to open up the space sector has been a game changer, he added.
Going ahead, Pixxel wants to do the designing and manufacturing process in-house. By December next year, the spacetech startup plans to deploy the first phase of a constellation, consisting of six to eight satellites, and deploy the entire constellation by December 2023.
Additionally, Pixxel is working towards developing its infrastructure and setting up a production facility in India to build satellites.
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After diving deep into the Indian startup ecosystem, Debolina is now a Technology Journalist. When not writing, she is found reading or playing with paint brushes and palette knives. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org