These 22-year-old space tech enthusiasts have their eyes on the moon

Starting off in May 2018, Pixxel claims to be building a constellation of earth-imaging small satellites that will be able to offer a unique dataset. This constellation of satellites will provide global coverage every 24 hours helping organisation...

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The technology developed by the two space tech enthusiasts will be used to map out resources on the moon, Mars and the asteroid belt. (Representative image)
What are the odds that two 20-year-olds would set up a space tech company from India? Slim, maybe? But, that’s exactly what BITS Pilani grads Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal have been able to pull off.

The dream to elevate India’s stature among global aerospace companies such as US’ Boeing, SpaceX and Lockheed as well as Europe’s Airbus motivated the duo to work hard towards that vision. “That’s the gap Pixxel wanted to plug,” says Awais Ahmed, Founder and CEO, Pixxel.

Starting off in May 2018, Pixxel claims to be building a constellation of earth-imaging small satellites that will be able to offer a unique dataset. This constellation of satellites will provide global coverage every 24 hours helping organisations across the world predict global phenomena in near real time. “Pixxel is manufacturing and monitoring nano-satellites that are not more than the size of a shoe-box (weight close to 16kg). This will bring down the cost to only 1/5th or sometimes even 1/10th of that of existing players in the industry. It will generate global acceptance for private Indian space exploration initiatives,” he enthusiastically adds.


Coming together
Both the founders grew up in small village towns and were fascinated with space and technology since childhood. Eventually they met in BITS Pilani, became friends and were also part of a team called ‘Hyperloop India’. Ahmed, in fact, was one of the founding members of this team. Students from different BITS campuses got together and were interacting with ‘SpaceX’, a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, headquartered in Hawthorne, California.

In 2017, this team presented a working Hyperloop pod prototype to Elon Musk at the SpaceX headquarters in LA. Ahmed and Khandewal, incidentally, turned out to be the only Indians and this team was one of the two Asian finalist teams at the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.

The successful stint at Hyperloop India made the two batchmates gear up to participate in the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE Competition in February 2018.
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They started off with constructing 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 significant issues. But there was a problem. The satellite imagery of the earth that was available for analysis, in most cases, was years old.

pixxel
Pixxel founders Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal

“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,” adds Ahmed.

To validate whether this was an actual problem that was being faced by people all around the world, they reached out to companies in Europe and the US that analysed satellite imagery for insights. An almost unanimous response to the lack of information-rich space imagery, including the willingness to pay for the data, made the duo realise that there was indeed an emerging market for the new kind of satellite imagery they wanted to bring in.

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Eventually, Ahmed and Khandelwal ended up not continuing in the AI XPRIZE competition as they shifted concentration towards building the satellites. And this is what led to Pixxel’s launch in May 2018. “While preparing for the competition, we realised that more than building strong AI map to draw insights from the satellite imagery date, the actual problem lies in the access for this data. Hence, we thought it through and started with the manufacturing as well,” highlights Ahmed.

Then and now
Being students, the duo initially faced huge challenges in raising funds. “In October 2018, I convinced a company whom we were working on a pilot with to book flight tickets to the US and participated in a pitching session organised by BITS alumni. I was able to convince the investors to put in money on the basis of the prototypes and pilots that were completed,” says Ahmed.

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Eventually, in February 2019, the company raised the first round of funding from GrowX ventures and other angel investors.

The next step was hiring the kind of talent that could complement the company’s vision. “We were upfront about the challenges and lofty ideals that we wanted to achieve. This helped us hire experienced engineers from Team Indus, a private for-profit aerospace company headquartered in Bangalore, and also attracted advisors from the highest rungs of ISRO,” he adds.

All this led to considerable progress for the company which, over the past 7 months, has signed MOUs with organisations that have the need for satellite imagery in South America, Asia, North America and European continents. The company, in fact, is in talks with few agritech companies in the US and India to start pilot testing the data from Jan 2020. “Launch of the first satellite is booked for June 2020. The ground station partnership is in place to beam down large amounts of data,” avers Ahmed.

Plans ahead
The plan ahead for Pixxel is well cut out. Once the first satellite is done and perfected, the company will develop newer satellites rapidly in three months and start launching five new satellites every six months. “By 2021, Pixxel’s first constellation will be complete which will keep on expanding and replacing,” reveals Ahmed.

The duo is also confident of the revenues that will flow in after the launch of their first satellite. “Since the proof of concept satellite flies in June 2020, the first revenues only start coming in then. With the commitments in place now, we will be able to recover the manufacturing cost of the first satellite. Flight testing starts in February next year, which will also generate revenue from two agri-tech companies that Pixxel is in talks with currently,” reveals Ahmed.

As far as India is concerned, the two space enthusiasts are of the view that though there has been a lot of progress in the last couple of decades, it is still a challenge for the government to manage resources efficiently and the individuals to maintain balance. “Here, Pixxel becomes important with the open-source access to satellite images and new technologies to process information that will prove to be a significant breakthrough and help document the true extent of such challenges, especially in a country like India with a massive population,” elucidates Ahmed.

For now, the space-tech startup has its eyes on the moon. Literally. The technology developed by them will be used to map out resources on the moon, Mars and the asteroid belt. “The same small satellites that can be used to image the earth can be the key to opening up cheap access to the entire solar system. By deploying swarms of Pixxel’s satellites, exploring the moon and Mars for potential landing sites becomes easier, identifying water and other precious resources on them and asteroids becomes cheaper and exploring any planetary body in the solar system becomes accessible to anyone,” he reveals.
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