The keywords are agriculture and climate change. The Challenge of an Australian Earth Observation Startup [Space Brothers Collab #22]

Warpspace Inc.
7 min readAug 29, 2023
© Koyama Chuya / Kodansha

“Space exploration” describes a wide range of developments and their objectives.

In this series, we will contemplate the present and future of space development with astronaut Serika Ito, who has been appointed Chief Dream Officer of Warpspace.

For the 22nd interview, we welcomed Mr. Venkat Pillay (Venkat), founder and CEO of LatConnect 60°, an Australian startup that utilizes satellite data to monitor farmland and measure carbon emissions. We asked Mr. Venkat why the company specializes in developing services for agriculture and the environment, as well as its future prospects.

Satellite data boosts Malaysian rice production by 15%!

© Koyama Chuya / Kodansha

Serika: Venkat, nice to meet you. Welcome to Japan from Australia! How do you like Japan?

Venkat: Thank you for the welcome. Nice to meet you, Serika!

Mr. Venkat Pillay

Speaking of Japan, I am a big fan of sashimi! I love tuna and salmon. I am sure I have only tried 0.2% or 0.3% of the many types of sashimi available, so I am looking forward to trying the rest.

By the way, one of the two areas of service we now offer is related to food.

By monitoring the “NDVI” of farmland via satellite, we can determine how crops are growing and when they are ready for harvest. We are using this technology to provide a solution for the Malaysian government to monitor the performance of farmers in the country, FMS, and a solution for farmers in Malaysia to use for their farming operations, AG60.

Note: Vegetation Index and NDVI
Vegetation indices are indicators designed to determine the condition of vegetation using a simple formula based on satellite data, taking advantage of the characteristics of light reflection by plants, and representing the amount and vitality of plants. A typical vegetation index is the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI).
Reference: About vegetation index data
https://www.gsi.go.jp/kankyochiri/ndvi.html

Although rice is the staple food in Malaysia, the self-sufficiency rate is about 70%. About 30% was imported. However, after introducing FMS and AG60, it has improved to about 85%!

Serika: That is a tremendous contribution!

Identifying Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions with High-Resolution Satellite Data

Serika: Please tell us about your other services.

Venkat: The second area is the monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions. In order to build a carbon-neutral society, we must first monitor the situation before we act, and we must monitor the reductions that have been made afterward. We are targeting oil and gas companies, thermal power plants, and cattle ranches that emit methane gas. The first satellite is scheduled for launch in late 2025.

Serika: Some private companies are launching satellites that can monitor greenhouse gas emissions; what makes the LatConnect 60° service so attractive?

Venkat: That’s a good question! There are two key points.

The first is that the spatial resolution (resolution) of our competitors’ satellite data is about 25m to 30m, while ours is 2.5m to 3m. Competitors can detect areas where greenhouse gases are being emitted, but we, LatConnect 60°, can identify pipes and fuel tanks where greenhouse gases are being emitted.

Serika: I see! If we can even identify the pipes and storage tanks, we can respond immediately to methane leaks, can’t we?

Venkat: That’s right. However, the higher spatial resolution means that the volume of data received from the satellite is larger. I have heard that in the case of our competitors, it takes several hours or even days from the time a satellite gets imagery until the data arrives on the ground. Moreover, when the number of satellites launched is only a few, the frequency with which they can observe the same area is not very high.

The second point is that we are planning a system in partnership with WarpSpace, which is building an optical communications network, to deliver data to the ground in about 15 minutes, even for larger images.

We’d like to solve the “food” problem.

Serika: By the way, how did you come to establish LatConnect 60°?

Venkat: First of all, let me tell you how I first turned my attention to the space business. When I was deciding on my major in college, I remembered being amazed and excited by the spaceships I saw in cartoons and comics as a child! So I decided to study aerospace engineering.

After graduating from college, I spent many years working for a satellite manufacturer in North America, including projects proposing and manufacturing optical and radar satellites for space agencies.

When the earth observation industry first began, it was mostly used by governments for national security purposes. However, when I realized that satellite data could also be used for agriculture and monitoring greenhouse gas emissions, I became very enthusiastic. I wanted to apply this technology not only to defense but also to other commercial industries.

Agriculture, or “food,” concerns everyone in the world. To learn more about the problems faced by farmers, I went on a field trip to Southeast Asia. Malaysia, where we provide our services, has a particularly large number of small-scale farmers, and the disparity in harvests was a problem. Furthermore, the climate has been changing rapidly in recent years, causing frequent floods and droughts. If food production becomes less efficient, it could lead to food shortages, right?

Serika: You founded your company with the aim of solving issues in agriculture and climate change, sounds inspirational! Speaking of which, what is the meaning behind the company name LatConnect 60°?

Venkat: This is another good question! Most of the densely populated areas in the world are located in the latitude ± 60° range, because above 60° it’s very cold. So we named it LatConnect 60° in the hope of connecting latitude ± 60° with data. (*”Lat” is an abbreviation of “Latitude” meaning “latitude”.)

Space Development Generates Innovation

Serika: It seems that once the LatConnect 60° satellite is launched, we will be able to offer even more services. If you have any ideas for new services or solutions you would like to develop in the future, please let us know!

Venkat: A service to track the food supply chain. Where does the food you are eating come from and how did you get it? There are farmers behind the food, and we would like society to become more aware of the process by which they produce it, harvest it, and make it available for us to eat. In addition, we should be aware that greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change and that the current natural environment is not something to be taken for granted.

I hope that as agriculture and environmental monitoring become more prevalent, we can improve the relationship between government regulators and citizens.

Serika: If more concrete information on food supply and greenhouse gas emissions becomes available, it is likely that society as a whole will become more aware of the issues. Finally, Mr. Venkat, please tell us why you think space development is necessary for us humans!

Venkat: Many of the technologies we use on the ground today are the result of technological advances that occurred during the space race during the Cold War. In fact, you can’t have modern life without GPS high-precision positioning technology. Where this technology came from is the result of the space race. Therefore, space development is not just about going to the moon or Mars.

©︎NASA

In the process of going to the moon and Mars, many technologies will be developed in the future. For example, Elon Musk of SpaceX is aiming to develop the Moon and Mars, and in the process, he has created a rocket that can be launched every month. It is a reusable rocket. He is probably the only person in the world to have done this successfully.

By drawing a roadmap for space development, we can see that greater innovation will occur. It will encourage humanity to take on more challenges!

Serika: Thank you very much, Mr. Venkat!

Venkat: Thank you very much!

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Our guest for the 22nd interview of the series of conversations with Astronaut Serika was Venkat Pillay, the CEO of LatConnect 60°.

The theme of the next article is disaster prevention, and the guest is Professor Shirasaka of the Graduate School of System Design and Management, Keio University. With a 70–80% probability of a Nankai Trough earthquake occurring within the next 30 years, Professor Shirasaka will discuss what kind of social systems should be built in response to the growing demand for disaster countermeasures. Please stay tuned!

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Warpspace Inc.

Warpspace develops “WarpHub InterSat”, an optical inter-satellite data relay service. We will realize this service for LEO Sat operators by 2025.