Loft Orbital is launching ‘virtual missions’ for developers who want access to space

SaaS – software-as-a-service – is the paradigmatic acronym for startups operating in the last decade. But if Loft Orbital has its way, SaaS will soon come to mean something very different: space infrastructure-as-a-service.

The San Francisco-based startup has already made significant progress by developing what it calls an “abstraction layer” between the satellite bus and payloads: it buys standard satellites from vendors such as Airbus and LeoStella and installs ob them payloads from customers, saving them the hassle. to purchase, operate and manage their own hardware and ground segment network.

But Loft Orbital sees a greater need for access to space, as it launches a new product that removes the customer’s hardware completely out of the question. In a new initiative the company calls “virtual missions,” customers will be able to deploy their software apps on a Loft satellite to use the on-board sensors and computing nodes, analyzing data as it is collected and running a full-scale application. cases.

Loft has already flown several virtual missions on YAM-3, its satellite that was launched two years ago. But the company is beginning to see a growing need to deploy AI software in space – specifically, software apps connected to the cloud infrastructure here on Earth.

“We started Loft because we always heard that customers wanted to get their space missions faster,” Loft CEO Pierre-Damien Vaujour told TechCrunch. “After a few years, the market told us they wanted insights from satellite data faster.”

“Developing something that requires technicians in a clean room using software processed and proprietary in the protocol of large defense companies in environments not connected to the internet is not how modern developers want to build of applications,” he explained.

The company will launch its first satellite dedicated to virtual missions, called YAM-6, aboard SpaceX’s Transporter-10 ride-share mission scheduled for February 2024.

To access a virtual mission, Loft will provide its customers with a software development kit, testing environment, as well as its mission-agnostic operations software, called Cockpit. The customer has access to payloads including a hyperspectral imager, RGB imager, software-defined radio and inter-satellite link for real-tie connectivity. YAM-6 is also available with CPU and GPU computing options for AI workloads.

Vaujour says demand is so high — with some customers pre-booking 10% of the on-board computing resources available for Loft’s next 20 planned virtual satellites — that the company intends to begin deploying multiple constellations dedicated to serving “virtual” customer missions. .

“Until now, the space has not been open to developers,” he said. “It’s not possible to run your own software on someone else’s hardware in space. No satellite operator will allow you to do this, and even if they did, you would need access to their expensive, custom testbed to test and validate your software app before deploying it on their satellite. Loft changes an entire paradigm, by allowing any developer to create software that runs in the space using the tools and environment they use to create apps for the web.

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