SkyWatch Space Applications has landed a CDN$1.2-million contract with the Canadian Space Agency that could open up a huge new market for the Kitchener-based company.

The contract leverages SkyWatch’s data-management expertise to create new AI-supported software that will help the space agency manage – and get more value out of – the vast amounts of images and data that it now gathers from numerous satellites.

“The future of Earth observation is autonomous,” said SkyWatch co-founder and CEO James Slifierz. “We believe that the entire industry will shift over the next decade from having satellite mission operations managed by humans to being largely autonomous and run by software.”

That’s good news for nine-year-old SkyWatch.

"Our team has a deep understanding of how AI and big-data analytics can be used to improve mission operations and optimize the application of Earth observation data,” said Slifierz. “We think that not only will the Canadian Space Agency be a customer of this technology, but we believe eventually every space agency (and commercial satellite operator) will use this or similar technology to run their operations.”

The need for more efficient ways to manage, analyze and leverage satellite data arises from the rapid increase in the number of satellites orbiting the Earth. There are approximately 7,300 active satellites – half of them operated by Elon Musk’s Starlink enterprise – circling the planet today. That’s up from about 1,071 in 2010.

“A decade ago it was rare for an organization – a government or private entity – to manage more than a handful of satellites,” said Slifierz. “Now we’re in the hundreds and thousands…. As these systems grow in complexity, they become harder to manage with human beings. You need the intelligent software to autonomously leverage and manage these networks.”

It's this complexity that the Canadian Space Agency is trying to address.

The CSA put out a “challenge” through the federal Innovative Solutions Canada program, which encourages government departments and agencies to work with Canadian companies to find innovative solutions to complex problems.

The CSA challenge is called Artificial Intelligence and Big Data Analytics for Advanced Autonomous Space Systems

SkyWatch was selected to go through Phase 1 of the process, which involved developing a prototype to demonstrate technical feasibility. Phase 2 – funded by the CDN$1.2 million announced this week – is to build a production-ready system. If successful, there’s potential for a Phase 3 – implementing the software system and having it adopted by the Canadian Space Agency.

To illustrate the benefits of equipping satellites with AI-based software, Slifierz used the example of a forest fire.

“The moment the satellite goes over a wildfire that’s in the infancy of development, the satellite can itself detect that a wildfire is starting,” he said. “The information does not need to flow to a person here on the ground for further analysis. You can actually (deploy) the wildfire-detection algorithms and capabilities right there aboard the spacecraft. And once the system identifies a threat like this, it can then talk to other satellites to command and control which other satellites in the network will follow up and continue to monitor that event, while continuously providing that information back down to the ground so that the people who need to respond can do so much more quickly.”

SkyWatch makes software for both the supply and demand side of the satellite-data market. 

On the demand side, the company’s EarthCache platform provides companies in a variety of industries with access to satellite data and imagery that can then be integrated into the buyer’s products and services.

On the supply side, SkyWatch’s TerraStream suite helps satellite operators manage the ordering, processing and delivery of data and images to their customers.

“We’re at the forefront at figuring out how to connect people who need data with the satellites that can go capture that data,” said Slifierz. “SkyWatch provides access to more imaging satellites than any other platform in the world. We cover almost 90 per cent of all imaging satellites in orbit today.”

SkyWatch was founded in 2014 by Slifierz, Roland Sing and Dexter Jagula, who first met through startup connections in the Toronto area.

The trio teamed up to enter the 2014 NASA Space Apps Challenge hackathon. They won the Toronto round and went on to win the NASA International Space Apps Challenge, beating out more than 650 other projects. 

The SkyWatch team moved to Waterloo Region to participate in the Google for Entrepreneurs program at Communitech. In 2017, they shared top honours at Communitech’s Rev Demo Day in Toronto, splitting $100,000 with a future unicorn, Ada Support.

The company announced a Series B raise of US$17.2 million in June 2021. Previously, it raised US$7.5 million through a Series A, and US$3.2 million through a seed round.

SkyWatch now employs 50 and operates out of the former Vidyard offices on Queen Street in downtown Kitchener.