ICEYE co-founder Rafal Modrzewski discusses the origin and evolution of the Finnish SAR satellite company and its partnership to provide Ukraine with access to SAR capabilities.
A decade ago, Rafal Modrzewski and Pekka Laurila came up with the idea for ICEYE while studying together at Finland’s Aalto University. Laurila specialized in GIS, while Modrzewski studied radio science, and together they worked on a team that designed the first Finnish satellite ever launched. By the time that satellite reached space, Modrzewski and Laurila had left to cofound ICEYE, and in 2018 the company sent the second Finnish satellite into orbit: ICEYE-X1, the world’s first synthetic aperture radar (SAR)-equipped microsatellite. The company’s name derives from the first challenge ICEYE addressed, studying the effects of climate change on Arctic ice along the Northern Sea Route.
Modrzewski spoke to trajectory about the company’s approach, and the effect he believes commercial SAR satellites will have on geospatial intelligence.
trajectory: ICEYE helped pioneer the launch of small, commercial SAR satellites, but now that market is growing more crowded. What differentiates ICEYE in terms of your products and approach?
Modrzewski: We are highly vertically integrated. We are responsible for the design of almost all the subsystems that constitute the satellite, and that gives us an ability to change things at a much lower level, and all the team is a single entity that works very efficiently. So, we don’t get interface problems, and we’re able to optimize things at the system level with solutions that are as deep as the subsystems.
That structure has also allowed us to introduce what we call agile hardware methodology in our development, and it means that we iterate satellite designs very quickly. We have a big team of engineers that owns that design, and they continuously make improvements to all sorts of elements. We are releasing new generations of satellites fast, and they keep getting better—and the same goes with the SAR processor, which we write ourselves. That benefits from our knowledge of every single element inside the satellite. That’s the foundational part of ICEYE that has allowed us to become the leader of the market and is allowing us to keep our leadership position.
What will be the effect of the wave of small commercial satellites coming online now and over the next few years? What are the tactical implications of that added persistence and detail?
Because of all the changes in commercial space technology over the past five years, including signal intelligence, SAR, optical and other sensors, there’s been a major change in the frequency with which we can capture the data, as well as the variety of data that we can capture, and also the speed with which we can recover or receive that data. You’re talking about a 10x change usually, because it used to be one image per day for SAR, and now it’s 10 images per day with ICEYE’s constellation. When you combine that with the fact that you can receive those images within 20 or 30 minutes following acquisition, you’re changing the whole paradigm of the use of space in a theoretical military conflict. You’re changing the use of the information from the strategic domain to the tactical domain because suddenly it comes to you so fast and so frequently that you can make tactical decisions based on the information.
In August, you announced that ICEYE is partnering with the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation to provide the Government of Ukraine with access to your SAR capabilities. What went into that decision?
Supporting this situation is just the right thing to do. It’s always been a part of our moral compass and internal company integrity. We’ve been clear about the fact that we are going to provide appropriately coordinated support. We didn’t want to do it ourselves, but in coordination we’re happy to do so. That makes us proud, and a second thing that makes us proud is that we did not expect that there would be such a request—we thought that satellites were perhaps on a different level of priority. But it turned out they are extremely important, and ICEYE’s technology is very useful. I think that’s just a recognition of the quality of the product that we have managed to create.
What drew you to USGIF? What do you hope to achieve through your participation in this community?
We believe that because the new space revolution is in such early days—and I believe that it’s extremely early days, these are still baby steps that we are making—the best way to proceed in a market like this is actually to do it in a team. We felt that USGIF is the right community to be part of, and we’re proud to be part of it.
What does the future hold for ICEYE? How do you expect your industry to evolve?
The sector is headed for continued, exponential growth. I think the sector will get out of the market’s downturn stronger because it’s foundationally needed as a technology and has very strong foundations. And then it will keep on growing.
For ICEYE specifically, our constellation will grow majorly over the next five years. We are today building 12 satellites a year, and we are increasing fast. I expect that we we’ll be doing 50-plus satellites per year down the line, with significantly enhanced capabilities and much faster delivery. So everything that people have dreamed of, such as, ‘Can we get an image down to within five minutes rather than 30?’—I am certain that it will be possible.
The other thing to emphasize is the work being done on building applications around SAR data. Having raw SAR imagery is great, but we need to be able to convert it into insights that can be understood and used by people who are not GIS experts, but they need this information that they need insights for decision making. Right now we are still living in a closed community of experts, and we want to get out into the open world, and we are putting a lot of effort into that.