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Meet the 22-year-olds who are building earth imaging satellites for farmers

Pixxel co-founders Awais Ahmed (right) and Kshitij Khandelwal
Two years ago, a team of young Indian students presented a working Hyperloop pod prototype to tech billionaire Elon Musk at his aerospace company SpaceX’s headquarters in California. It was the only Indian and one of the two Asian finalist teams for the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition, which is aimed at building a new mode of passenger transportation that pushes a pod-like vehicle through a near-vacuum tube at the speed of an aircraft.

Buoyed by the positive response provided by the SpaceX, two of the team members, Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal, tried to participate in the other global competition, the IBM Watson AI XPrize. This time, they were looking at using artificial intelligence (AI) to address various problems in the area of agriculture. But they realised soon that good satellite data that they could use for solving the problem was not available. This spurred them to start building their own satellites. Khandelwal and Ahmed, both around 22 now, co-founded earth imaging start-up Pixxel in their final year at BITS Pilani in 2018.  

“We realised there was an issue with satellite imagery,” says Khandelwal, CTO of Pixxel. What also motivated Khandelwal is that he hails from a family of farmers in Amdapur village in the drought-prone Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, and had seen agriculture-related problems first-hand.

Pixxel, which is India’s first private earth imaging company, is working on building a constellation of earth-imaging small satellites to provide real-time and affordable satellite imagery. It will provide global coverage every 24 hours once the satellites are fully deployed. After the imagery is beamed down to earth, the images from Pixxel’s satellites are ingested into a web platform that tracks changes in farms and helps improve productivity. The platform analyses the data collected using neural networks and cloud computing horsepower. This would enable it to provide highly accurate forecasts in a multitude of domains and see things before they happen. Other areas in which these solutions can come handy are detecting crop diseases and pest infestation.
“If you are able to get the image of a particular area every 28 days with just one big satellite...we would able to give daily coverage (using many small satellites),” says Khandelwal.

This month, Pixxel signed an agreement with leading weather forecast provider Skymet to build customised products for boosting small farm productivity. By partnering with Pixxel, Skymet will get access to Pixxel’s high-resolution satellite imagery, uniquely designed to observe changes in agricultural phenomena like crop and soil health, soil moisture and chlorophyll content. This will help increase small farm productivity and yield in India while reducing the costs, minimise the environmental impact with precision agriculture practices, and manage agriculture production better.

Skymet’s monsoon forecasting capabilities combined with close to 7,500 Automated Weather Stations (AWS), 400 agricultural sensors and one of India’s largest drone fleets will be a perfect addition to Pixxel’s imaging capabilities from space.

Pixxel’s CEO Awais Ahmed says that the partnership enables the firm to fuse Skymet’s weather dataset along with its unique imagery, helping millions of small farm holders in India to improve their yields and lives. “Over the years, there have been many exciting advances in data, satellite imagery and machine learning for agriculture. Until recently, very few of these technologies were available to Indian farms due to a lack of data-rich imagery,” says Ahmed. “With advanced space-tech solutions, we aim to partner with India in its growth story.”

According to Skymet Weather Services’ managing director Jatin Singh, the company plans to give farmers in India personalised advisory using satellite imagery from the cluster of satellites that Pixxel will launch.

To start Pixxel, the founders moved to Workbench Projects, a co-working makerspace and a fab-lab located under Halasuru Metro Station in Bengaluru. They had already worked there for the hyperloop project. However, making the satellites requires a lot of money and raising capital from investors, which initially posed a big challenge for the company. Last year, with the support from friends, Ahmed went to the US and got backing from the BITS alumni network there. The company also raised an undisclosed pre-seed round of funding from GrowX Ventures, Techstars and other prominent angel investors such as Raju Reddy, Dileep Nath, and Pawan Sarda earlier this year. It also became the only Asian firm to be selected for the first batch of 10 start-ups for Los Angeles-based Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator. This gives the young entrepreneurs an early grasp of business-use cases for their satellites as well as validation from the world’s top experts from organisations such as NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the United States Air Force and Lockheed Martin.

Pixxel is launching its first satellite in June next year, aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. By 2022, the start-up plans to have a constellation of satellites. Apart from agriculture, it is working on other applications such as providing real-time updates of movements or deformations in different regions on earth that can help forecast calamities and plan rescue operations better. It is also looking at providing near real-time alerts on oil and gas pipeline leaks, greenhouse gas emissions and oil spills.

“I have had the chance to observe Pixxel's team from the very beginning as the young team continues to impress with their speed of execution and professionalism,” says M Krishnaswamy, former programme director for IRS and Small Satellite System at Indian space agency Isro. “There is a great need for the dataset that Pixxel is creating and I am confident that they will be successful in its mission.”

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