Interview: Bryan Dean, CEO and co-founder, Dragonfly Aerospace
Image credit: Nick Smith
As the company’s first satellite heads for the skies, CEO of space engineering firm Dragonfly Aerospace Bryan Dean discusses how Earth imaging can make the world a more sustainable place to live in.
“I would like to explore Earth first. Then the Moon, Mars, the asteroids and even further beyond. And if the hardware that I am building is out there helping us to do that, it would give me large amounts of satisfaction.” Bryan Dean is describing his personal mission for Dragonfly Aerospace that designs and manufactures satellite cameras for monitoring what’s happening on Earth from orbit. His company is also just about to launch its first satellite.
While Dragonfly’s CEO and co-founder is passionate about space, he recognises that there are “a lot of pressing matters here on Earth”. With his company based in South Africa, the national water crisis of 2017 is still fresh in his mind. “We were worried that the water was going to run out. We were calling it Day Zero, and getting to the point where the dams were almost finished. And then there was going to be anarchy. When there are thousands queuing for a litre of water a day, the scenario gets quite real. The people had to adjust their behaviour to solve this crisis. This problem is looming globally: the statistics tell us that by 2050 half the world is going to be in water crisis.”
Managing water resources is also a matter for Earth-orbiting imaging technology, says Dean: “The systems we are developing are directly useful for enabling us to do this more carefully. One of the things we have found is that there are huge leakages in the water system. You might take these for granted in times of plenty, but when you’re starting to count every drop then it’s a big deal.” Dean explains how he’s been familiar for years with a lake on the side of the highway connecting Stellenbosch to Cape Town. Only, “it’s not a lake. It’s a leak from a municipal water pipeline. It was just wasted water coming out of our system.” By using low-orbit imaging systems, says Dean, we’re better able to manage our understanding of what water insecurity looks like.
To get data on such issues, “we’re currently working on a radar system that can penetrate the surface of the soil to measure water content”. Conventional aerial photography might not be able to differentiate “between a swamp and a dry field. But with radar we can see if a place is saturated and try to understand that in terms of leakage.” This is the biggest challenge, says Dean. But to fix leaks, “you need to get a vehicle out there. You need precise data on where the leaks are so you can focus your energy on repairing them.”
Dean says that one of the best ways to identify these hotspots is from satellite imaging systems: “Obviously you can use drones and people. But the big advantage of satellites is that we can cover really huge areas on a regular basis, which you just cannot do with other sensors.” The same applies for ice-loss monitoring in the polar regions: “From an environmental point of view, we’re able to look at what’s happening with the breaking up of the icesheet. But we can also monitor the rainforest too.”
Living in South Africa, Dean grew up spending time in the country’s great game reserves: “We’re privileged to have those kinds of natural habitats.” He describes the bush as being “representative of how the world once was before humans had a big impact on it. We chop down the forest to make farmland to feed humans in the population explosion. But in the process, we’re destroying the planet’s diversity.”
When it comes to agriculture, getting data on land use from space “allows us to do farming more intelligently”, says Dean. “We’ve got to use technology to optimise the way humans manage our resources. If we manage the way we farm more effectively, we can produce the same amount of food from a smaller area – or more from the land we’re using – which means less impact on the environment. That’s a fundamental for me.”
At the time of writing, Dean is busy preparing for the launch of EOS SAT-1 – ‘EOS’ stands for ‘Earth Observation System’ – as it leaves Dragonfly’s design and manufacturing facility in Stellenbosch, heading for Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA. After pre-launch testing, the satellite and cameras will “hitch a ride” into orbit on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket powering the Transporter-6 mission. EOS SAT-1 will form the first of a seven-satellite constellation in low-Earth orbit for Dragonfly’s client EOSDA (EOS Data Analytics). Dragonfly claims EOS SAT will be the world’s first agriculture-focused satellite constellation that will provide both the agriculture and forestry industries with high-quality data to support efficient and sustainable practices. The remaining six satellites of the constellation will be deployed over the next three years: “We look forward to supporting EOSDA with its mission to launch these satellites by 2025.”
Dean explains that EOS SAT-1 will have two DragonEye electro-optical imagers on board that will provide 44km of swath panchromatic and multispectral imagery across 11 spectral bands at close to 1m resolution, “making it one of the most powerful satellites in low-Earth orbit”. Images transmitted back from the unit will deliver crucial data on harvest monitoring, application mapping and seasonal planning, as well as soil moisture, yield prediction and biomass levels assessments. “This will have important environmental benefits for the planet and help prevent natural habitats from being diminished for crop growth.” It will also help growers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and “help them to develop sustainable agricultural methods without financial losses”.
“This is a key moment for Dragonfly Aerospace,” says the South African engineer, “and we are thrilled to be delivering EOS SAT-1 with a number of firsts. It’s the first imaging satellite designed and built by Dragonfly, and the first to be manufactured in South Africa since 2009. It’s also the first satellite of the EOS SAT constellation and the first agri-focused constellation in space. He says satellite data supports ‘precision agriculture’ by increasing agricultural yields. In agriculture, satellite data monitors soil, chlorophyll content, releases of greenhouse gas and rainfall to inform predictions for agricultural output. In the energy and mining sectors, satellite data monitors methane emissions, informs the development of sustainable energy services and provides imagery of mining sites, while in finance it leverages the geolocation tracking of commodities to inform trades.
Dean says EOS SAT-1 has been “an important project for our whole team and has allowed us to demonstrate our capabilities, not just in producing high-performance electro-optical imagers, but in designing and manufacturing a full imaging satellite system”.
He co-founded the fledgeling organisation in 2019 with a group of experienced aerospace engineers; Dragonfly currently operates out of “a state-of-the-art 3,000m² design and manufacturing facility” with a customer base including NanoAvionics, Spire, UKRI, ZfT, EnduroSat, Loft Orbital and Pixxel. Individual members of the team have “been at the forefront of South Africa’s aerospace industry since the launch of the country’s first Earth-observation satellite in 1999, through to the most recent satellite launch in 2018, and imager launch in 2022”.
At this point Dean reminds me that it’s just over 65 years since the world’s first artificial satellite – the Soviet Union’s Sputnik – was launched into space. Which means that, for most of us, we’ve spent our entire lives used to the idea that there’s human technology orbiting Earth. But, says Dean, during this time, satellites have undergone continual shifts in societal purpose. “In terms of progression, ultimately technology thrives where there’s a business model. And the big jump came in the 1980s with satellite television, and the move from there was into satellite internet to service remote locations. In terms of imaging, you started off with governments using the technology for spy satellites, and then they started to bring them in at space agency level for environmental monitoring.”
‘Technology, electronics, materials have all got smaller, lighter and cheaper.’
In more recent times, “certainly the past decade, we have started to see commercial companies that are now providing imagery of the Earth. Google Earth is an example of that. You can check out the beach you want to go to on your holiday, but it can also be used for business purposes.” When it comes to map-making, it can be argued that satellite data being updated annually “is a frequency that’s more than enough”. But for clients who are building a highway system or monitoring crops, “you want to see a higher frequency than that, coming down to weeks or days. But as business needs grow, we’re starting to see – perhaps for investment or other financial purposes – commercial companies providing imaging daily. As these applications develop, there’s a trend for more information, more data, meaning that urban areas might be monitored multiple times a day.”
What’s enabled the update cycle to improve is “simply that technology, electronics, materials and so on have all got smaller, lighter and cheaper”. Previously, satellite imaging equipment might have weighed in “at a ton with a price tag of, say, US$200m to build, plus a few hundred million to launch. It used to be really expensive.” Today, says Dean, we’re reaching the price point where, “you can get an imaging system into orbit for just a few million dollars. That means for the same price you now get a hundred satellites, which then gives you the ability to take more pictures, more often, of the locations you’re interested in.” There’s another reason for this interest: according to Straits Research, the global satellite Earth-observation market was valued at $3.58bn in 2021, and is projected to reach $7.88bn by 2030.
Expansion of the industry, along with the increase in surveillance, comes with implications, says Dean. “On the one hand, from a scientific and engineering viewpoint, this can be seen as an amazing resource” that opens up new markets for commercial exploitation. But on the other, there is the issue of privacy. “Information can be used by governments to track people’s movements, which from a security perspective lands on the good side of things. But on the other side, who knows who’s using this information for what purposes? So there are definitely pluses and minuses. The satellites we build are part of that ecosystem, whether we like it or not. But the trend is there, and we’re growing into a system that, I guess, is going to get chaotic. There’s going to be drones everywhere. There are going to be robot taxis and satellites flying overhead. It’s going to be quite sci-fi. And maybe not the nice part of sci-fi.”
As Dean starts to enter the field of technology ethics, he stops and says: “Look, whenever you talk about information, it flips both ways. There’s good and bad. On a purely information level, deeply understanding how the Earth system works allows us to operate it more efficiently. This gives us better lives, cleaner water... I think that what I’m doing at Dragonfly contributes to that.”
Yet the increase in density of low-cost satellite technology circulating the globe means there is the potential of cluttering orbit with ever more space junk. Dean has mixed feelings on the subject. He subconsciously recalls the words of Magnum photographer Robert Capa – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” – when he says that the trend for increased-quality images from space means that orbits are getting lower. Operating at the now standard altitude of 500km, “it would take 20 years for a satellite’s orbit to decay, before it burns up on re-entry like a meteor. There is an environmental impact here. But at least in terms of congestion in space, they cease to be a problem.”
However, there’s no need to think that it’s all doom and gloom, says Dean. “I believe in progress. I believe in technology. I believe in a bright future where technology is part of it. At the same time we have issues such as population growth and climate change. There are challenges, and we can face them by changing our behaviour. Technology is what’s going to help us do that.”
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