Innovative High-Resolution and Low-Cost Aerial Photographs

Aerial Photographs: Colorado-based start-up Urban Sky’s innovation is a great success due to higher resolution photos at a considerably lower cost using the newly developed Microballoon system. We talked with Andrew Antonio, co-founder of Urban Sky.

Could you please tell us about Urban Sky’s innovation?

Urban Sky has designed a new type of aerial vehicle – the “Microballoon.” You can think of it as a small stratospheric satellite. It’s a completely carbon neutral, small, placeable stratospheric balloon that carries earth observation payloads that study the Earth more frequently, in higher resolution, and at a lower cost than ever before. Urban Sky’s mission is to democratize access to more and better Earth Observation data than ever before. The data we capture supports applications, including environmental monitoring, real-time wildfire monitoring, and asset management.

Who are behind Urban Sky? How many people are working with you, and who are the team members?

Aerial Photographs:Urban Sky’s Co-founder & CEO is Andrew Antonio, who previously led aspects of Sales, Marketing, and Go-To-Market at World View, a leading stratospheric technology company. Urban Sky’s Co-founder & CTO is Jared Leidich, who previously led the spacesuit design and operations team for Project StratEx. This program holds the current world record for the highest human balloon flight and skydive of all time (from ~136,000 ft. above Earth). Working with Jared and Andrew is an incredible team of engineers, developers, makers, and doers with varied and significant experience in payload engineering, image processing, stratospheric flight operations, and advanced manufacturing. The current team is just above ten people.

When and how did you come up with the idea?

The founders of Urban Sky were first introduced to the small, balloon-based Earth Observation concept during the StratEx project, where Andrew and Jared worked together and frequently launched small weather balloons with a GoPro camera. While the data quality and imagery from the GoPros were not commercially viable for remote sensing applications, it raised a question in the founders’ minds about whether extremely small, high-resolution, low-cost imaging payloads could be developed to fly on small, inexpensive stratospheric balloons. This question and idea would eventually influence what Urban Sky would become.

Why are you different from other competitors’ solutions?

Urban Sky’s concept is entirely new and different and is the only fully operational, small stratospheric remote sensing balloon available today. Our competitors are primarily fixed-wing and human-piloted aircraft that capture high-resolution Earth Observation data. Urban Sky can capture similar data in resolution to fixed-wing aircraft but at a significantly lower cost – anywhere from 3-10x cheaper than aircraft.

In which fields are high-resolution aerial images used? High-resolution aerial imagery is used broadly across several industries and applications, including environmental monitoring, asset/infrastructure monitoring, forestry, insurance inspections, conservation, oil & gas monitoring, natural disaster response, etc. As the saying goes, “a picture tells a thousand words.” In the case of aerial imagery, one individual picture can be used to answer several thousand different questions, spanning industries and applications.

Which fields might rely on your solution in the future?

We are already providing aerial imagery to several customers, including environmental agencies and utilities using our data to inspect river sheds and water reservoirs following wildfires, and oil & gas companies using our imagery to inspect their oil tanks and well heads. In the future, we anticipate offering low-cost access to our imagery to customers interested in studying the Earth and how it evolves.

What are microballoons, and how do they work?

Aerial Photographs: Microballoons are small, zero-emission, rapidly deployable, and fully reusable stratospheric balloons that carry Earth Observation payloads that can study the Earth more frequently, in higher resolution, and at a lower cost than ever before. Achieving altitude stability with a small balloon in the stratosphere is an innovation developed by Urban Sky that enables targeted remote sensing for customers. The balloon itself is an Urban Sky custom-designed and built, IP-protected stratospheric balloon that can stabilize at a predetermined altitude in the stratosphere (roughly between 16 and 21k above Earth) and use the natural wind currents of the stratosphere to fly along predetermined, targeted flight paths. The balloons can be launched in a matter of minutes by just one person from the back and, when they reach the stratosphere, they can scan approximately 1,000 square kilometers of landmass per hour in high resolution. Urban Sky also designs, builds, and operates custom, low-weight stratospheric imaging payloads carried by the balloons during any given Microballoon mission.

What is your scale-up plan?

Urban Sky plans to scale its imagery collection operation in the United States over the next several years based on customer needs and requests.

What kind of cameras can be used with your innovation?

Today, Urban Sky has two unique, custom-designed imaging payloads that capture 1) natural color aerial imagery (~10cm GSD resolution) and 2) long-wave-infrared imagery (or LWIR). The LWIR data is used to monitor wildfires in real time.

What matters most to your customers?

Customers in the aerial imagery market are most interested in more, better, and cheaper aerial imagery. Aerial imagery is very expensive today due to the fact that it’s collected by expensive aircraft and satellites. Urban Sky offers high-quality, high-resolution aerial imagery at prices that are a fraction of those other platforms. This cost advantage allows Urban Sky to capture imagery more frequently than other data providers, giving customers more opportunities to study changes on Earth.

Why is your microballoon system significantly cheaper but the highest quality equipment that can be used to produce aerial images?

Our flight system does not burn fuel like an aircraft or a rocket or even use significant battery power. The Microballoon is powered by the natural wind currents of the stratosphere, allowing Urban Sky to have a significant cost advantage compared to large, heavy vehicles that require human-piloting and constant refueling.

What kind of product development is taking place at your company? Are there any plans to improve the product? Urban Sky is constantly working on designing and enhancing the company’s flight systems, software, and imaging payloads. The changes customers will feel most will be directly related to improvements in imaging payloads, where we are continually developing higher-quality, higher-resolution imaging systems to provide our customers with the best possible remote sensing products.

Thank you so much for your answers. I wish you all the best of luck in your future endeavors with this amazing innovation.

Andrea Nyilas is a Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability Consultant and a Sustainability and Environmental journalist. She holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Central European University, in addition to a Master of Arts degree in Economics from the Corvinus University of Budapest. She is particularly interested in circular economy, natural resource management, and waste reduction.