Exclusive Interview | Sami Yacoubi, co-founder of SpaceSense

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“We want to open up space for humanity and in order to do that, space must be affordable,” Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk once said, recognizing the vast potential of space for the welfare of humanity.

Agriculture is one of the domains which can benefit the most from space tech and French agri-tech startup SpaceSense is exactly doing the same, harnessing the potential of cutting-edge technology to address today’s and tomorrow’s agricultural challenges.

In an exclusive interview with AgrigateGlobal’s co-founder Saura Panigrahi, Mr Sami Yacoubi, co-founder of SpaceSense shared how the company plans to simplify the creation and deployment of AI models primarily designed to extract advanced insights from satellite images.

Excerpts from the interview:

Now that your ‘idea’ is a shared vision; things must be looking more promising. Tell us more about your earlier days. How did SpaceSense happen?

Things are indeed very promising! We still have a lot to do but this recent fundraising is quite the encouragement. We started more than two years ago with Jyotsna Budideti, co-founder of SpaceSense, who got the idea while still working in AI at Airbus. On her own time, she worked on several applications based on satellite imagery (roof type detection, flood detection, quarries detection…). And for each of her projects, she noticed that at least 80% of her job was the same, regardless of the use case. And she started thinking on how we could automate this 80% to make this technology accessible to everyone and what that future would look like. And this is how SpaceSense was born.

We looked at several industries that could benefit from this technology, and agriculture was the best one. It had a serious need for the technology, good market readiness and it also had a real positive impact on society, by empowering growers and reducing water and chemical consumption.

After a few months, we got our first Proof of Concepts, our first interns, our first grants, and then things accelerated during early 2020 with our first customers. We quickly got from a few fields we monitored to 10,000 hectares, and in October we reached 1 million.

For most of us ‘space’ still is an unknown domain, particularly its applications in agriculture. How does your technology works to improve situation on the ground?

Contrary to a common misconception, most of what is sent into Space is done to benefit the earth. Weather satellites help us get a finer understanding of humidity and temperature changes, which have a major impact on farming. Communication satellites help remote farmers get access to the internet, at affordable prices. And Earth Observation satellites, what we use at SpaceSense, give you a bird’s view of the whole world every few hours. And it can give you quite a lot of information. The camera sensors are actually much more powerful than a naked eye and can perceive infrared information. And this is the range at which plants are actually the most active.

So with all these tools, we have more precise information about what is going on in each square meter of the field, and we can use this information to empower the grower. With these solutions, they can take quicker and better decisions that will ultimately reduce their use of water and chemicals, while avoiding yield loss through a better disease and pest detection system.

French startup SpaceSense

Your observation on the current infrastructure that drives your business viz. data collection from satellites, government policies and the ecosystem as a whole.

The use of satellite data for agriculture is growing quite rapidly, and it is not only something pushed by companies. The main effort has been done by the European Union. They have launched the Copernicus Programme a few years back which provides satellites which cover the whole world every few days, with a 10m pixel resolution. This data is available for free worldwide. This is currently more than 90% of the use of satellites in agriculture, and the market would not exist without that program. Governments are also pushing in this direction. Like I said before, satellite imagery is a great tool to reduce water and chemical use, without increasing costs for the growers. Most states are looking at it as a way to fight climate change and empower their growers at a low price. And it opens new possibilities like carbon sequestration credits, where the satellite is a great way to ensure that beneficial farming practices are applied. The main challenge that this technology still faces is adoption. Changing practices on the field takes time, and there is also a need to really train growers in the use of this data. Because if they just get a map but don’t know how that can translate into decisions, it has no use to them.

Spacetech is witnessing a giant leap with huge investments like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. How do you see its impact in terms of data quality and the affordability of technology like yours?

It has a direct impact on affordability. The cheaper the ride to Space is (what SpaceX, Rocket Lab or Blue Origin are working on), the more satellites you can send for the same price. This will directly affect the price of the images from these satellites, making the whole chain more affordable and thus cheaper for the final user. And it also affects accuracy. Maybe not in terms or image resolution, but in the delay between two images. The more satellites you have in orbit, the more you go over a certain place. A company called Planet currently monitors every place on earth almost one time a day, and they now aim to go down to once an hour. This will give us much more data to work with, and logically more information we can provide to our customers.

French startup SpaceSense

You have recently raised a seed round of €1 million, tell us more about it.

This money will help us recruit a team of 10 engineers specialising in AI and Remote Sensing, which is awesome. As in most start-ups, we don’t lack ideas or projects, but time and resources. With the arrival of the team, we aim to do much more and really become one of the leading companies in satellite insights for Agriculture.

And finally, what’s next?

Well, for the next few months, we want to focus on helping AgTech companies understand better what satellite insights are, and what they can bring. We noticed that a lot of people only think about the NDVI index (Normalized difference vegetation index) when they talk about satellite imagery. But it is so much more! The arrival of AI in the mix does change the range of solutions that can be provided quite a lot.

So we want to help companies get started in satellite insights with basic solutions, and then accompany them as they mature towards more complex and value adding solutions. This is actually why we developed a free solution called the Space Agriculture Starter Pack which gives access to 20,000 ha of satellite information to AgTech companies. This is the perfect solution to get started and provide instant value with a very simple integration.

Our 5-year goal is to make satellite imagery a common technology in all farms all around the world.