SaaS — software-as-a-service — was the paradigmatic acronym for startups operating over 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 enormous progress by developing what it calls an “abstraction layer” between the satellite bus and payloads: It buys standard satellites from vendors like Airbus and LeoStella and outfits them with payloads from customers, saving them the hassle of purchasing, operating and managing their own hardware and ground segment network.
But Loft Orbital sees even greater demand for space access, because it’s rolling out a new product that takes customer hardware out of the question entirely. In a new initiative the company is calling “virtual missions,” customers will be able to deploy their software apps onto a Loft satellite to leverage on-board sensors and compute nodes, analyze data as it is being collected and run a whole range of use cases.
Loft has already flown several virtual missions on YAM-3, its satellite that was launched two years ago. But the company started seeing growing demand to deploy AI software in space — specifically, software apps that are connected to cloud infrastructure here on Earth.
“We started Loft because we heard repeatedly that customers wanted to get their missions to space faster,” Loft CEO Pierre-Damien Vaujour told TechCrunch. “After a few years, the market told us that it wanted insights from satellite data faster.”
“Developing something that requires technicians in a clean room using software processed and protocol proprietary to large defense prime companies in environments unconnected to the internet is not how modern developers wanted to build those applications,” he explained.
The company will launch its first satellite dedicated to virtual missions, called YAM-6, onboard SpaceX’s Transporter-10 rideshare mission slated for February 2024.
To access a virtual mission, Loft will provide its customers with a software development kit, a testing environment, as well as its mission-agnostic operations software, called Cockpit. The customer will have access to payloads including a hyperspectral imager, an RGB imager, a software-defined radio and an inter-satellite link for real-tie connectivity. YAM-6 will also be outfitted with CPU and GPU compute options for AI workloads.
Vaujour said that the demand is so high — with some customers prebooking 10% of the on-board compute resources available on Loft’s next 20 planned virtual mission satellites — that the company is looking to start deploying large constellations dedicated to serving “virtual” customer missions.
“Until now, space has not been open to developers,” he said. “Running your own software on someone’s else’s hardware in space is not possible. No satellite operator will let you do this, and even if they did, you’d need to access their expensive, custom testbed in order to test and validate your software app before deploying it to their satellite. Loft is changing the entire paradigm, by allowing any developer to create software to run in space using the tools and environments they use to develop apps for the web.”