Precious Payload, the brain child of Andrey Maskimov and Andrei Rebrov, is aiming to transform the way in which small satellite operators secure their launches. As we heard at Satellite 2018 this year, small satellites are being hit by a launch bottleneck and are mostly reduced to piggybacking on larger satellite launches and settling for what they can get. This can impact negatively on schedules and revenues.
Using cutting-edge software, Precious Payload aims to provide an efficient service that will enable small satellite operators to view exactly which launch vehicles are available and can accommodate their mission. With a slew of new and exciting launchers dedicated to small satellites set to become operational in the near future, this is an exciting and dynamic market. Helen Jameson, Editor-in-Chief, SpaceWatch.Global, sat down with Andrei Rebrov, CTO, Precious Payload to find out more about his background, what brought him to the space industry and about how the company is poised to make launching small satellites a much easier task.
Can you tell me about your background and how you have become involved in helping small satellite operators getting rides to space?
Sure. My background is 100% software engineering because I used to work as an outsourcer for a bunch of companies. Then I made the transition into consultancy, where I was helping companies in Russia to improve their software business, so I was working with entities such as banks and logistics companies. Then, I started to consider doing something on my own. My parents were both involved in the space industry. Since my childhood, I had always been exposed to space through books and science fiction. This is how I was raised and for a long time I was thinking about how I could combine my two passions.
Then, in 2013, I met Andrey Maskimov when I was helping him to launch a project and we stayed in touch with each other. At the time, he was involved with a couple of specific projects connected to the space industry and I learned more about what he was doing. When you talk about the launch providers you think about the big names such as SpaceX, Soyuz and Arianespace but when we started to dig deeper, we found that there are around 50 companies that were either building rockets or trying to build a rocket.
We were just sharing ideas on what could be done in this area and then Andrey was speaking to the CTO of a company who told him that he was going to have to spend the next 4-6 months trying to find a launch and only when a launch was secured could the company build the spacecraft based on who would be launching it. It sounded like an opportunity for us, because if no one was doing this we could solve this problem with software. You have a demand, you have a supply – you just connect these guys.
In recent years, thanks to companies like Spire and Planet, the LEO constellations are growing and people need more connectivity between devices and people. That’s why the industry is where it is. We see that there is a demand for this type of services. It’s a good opportunity for our very helpful software so that these small satellite companies can secure a launch.
What has the feedback from the industry been like?
People like the idea because when we speak to people from both sides – launch providers and satellite operators, for them the current launch booking process is broken. First of all, you have to know someone in order to launch within a matter of weeks. If you don’t you will probably go through a broker and the problem with a broker is that they are the middle man and they want to have their own margin and this creates some problems. First of all, pricing is not fair or transparent and satellite operators don’t understand where this extra money is going. You don’t know what’s going on with the launch of the satellite until it is actually integrated into the launch vehicle. Therefore, people are not satisfied with the way it works right now and the truth is that providers and operators need to work much closer with each other.
We are progressing gradually because people are cautious about the transition to a new model because it’s a risk and some people don’t want to break their relationships with brokers, but if everything goes right we hope to announce a case study this summer at the Small Satellite Symposium.
How does the platform actually work if I am an operator looking to launch my smallsat?
The closest analogy will be either Expedia or Kayak. You go to the website and fill in all the parameters of the mission. Ideally, at some date we will show you the Expedia-like interface with all the available options. Right now, we receive your request and we carry out certain due diligence on your parameters to establish whether you are a legitimate company, where you are from etc. If it all checks out, we give you access to the system and then the most interesting part happens. We do the matchmaking using our proprietary algorithm based on the technical parameters and constraints of your mission and of the launch providers. Do they have thrusters or not? What are their power constraints? What kind of interface do they use? What is the size of the spacecraft? What is the shape of the spacecraft? Is it a cubesat or not? Then we either connect you to certain manifests for launch or we just show you the launch providers who might help you and vice versa. Launch providers get the launch request, either connected to a specific manifest or they can share with other companies. Some companies don’t want to share their manifests because they may have some military customers but they want to see what’s happening in the market.
At the moment are you gauging interest form the launch service providers so that you know who you can welcome into your system?
Yes, exactly. Since it’s a marketplace, there is always the problem of the chicken and the egg. One of the most important parts of the launch is insurance. People want pre-launch insurance as well as launch insurance and big guys want their one year in-orbit insurance. This is something that we also plan to automate. We are working with a major insurance broker in order to make it much easier through automation – like buying travel insurance for yourself online. Even people who launch satellites every year and know everyone in the market really appreciate the automation of all this paperwork. We want to make this smooth and efficient.
Are you going to be focusing on the entire small satellite market?
Ideally yes. Right now we are focusing on nanosats and microsats because it is a more defined area in terms of size and shape parameters. Eventually, we will go to the smallsat suborbital flights and nanosatellite carriers. The industry has had success defining cubesats, so let’s do the same for smallsats – anything around 100-150kg. Let’s make another standard that will help not only launch providers to make the integration process shorter, but also to help satellite operators who will be able to find their launch provider more easily because everything is already pre-defined.
If an operator gets let down on a launch, can you step in last minute? What’s the normal timeline on a launch and how quickly could you secure a launch if an operator is let down?
There is a global distribution solution system that exists behind companies like Expedia and Kayak that was developed for airline tickets and hotel bookings. When it was created, it opened up the market for short notice booking. The global distribution system we are working on manages the entire launch inventory and enables short notice launches and the re-booking of launches. In terms of short notice, it depends on the launcher. Some companies require at least 12 months notification prior to launch and some companies are ready to get a satellite on board 3 months prior to launch. It could be done quickly and people have hardware capacity to launch but it depends on who you know. We want to make this accessible to everyone.
Have you had many approaches from investors as yet?
We are talking to investors right now. It’s hard for us because what we need from an investor is not just money. We are looking for a partner who ideally understands both the space and software industries. So it’s hard to find someone that has that combined experience. Right now there are a lot of venture funds looking for companies in the later stages and there are others that are looking for a fast Return on Investment. So it takes time but I feel that, once we can start to announce our clients publicly, this will bring more attention from investors.
You must be excited about the amount of new launch service providers and the innovation coming through.
It is very exciting. These small vehicles allow dedicated flights to the smallsat market so this could allow really short notice launch. There are some companies are not just doing propulsion with oxygen and kerosene. There is the new Thor launcher that will operate through a 8km-long pipe on the ground and Stofiel Aerospace that wants to use a balloon-based solution so it’s very interesting what is going on in the industry. As I said before, we see more than 50 companies who are building a rocket or will try to launch very soon. This is unprecedented. During panels at World Satellite Business Week in Paris last year, and at Satellite 2018 some are very skeptical about the new small launch vehicles and were asking why do you need new launch vehicles when you have the established ones? These large launchers can help to launch a constellation but someone else will be needed for replenishment and someone to do short notice launches so there is a market for these small launch vehicles in the next 5 years as these new small satellites are lofted. I think the most exciting year will be 2020 because almost every company mentioned said they will launch by then.
Andrei Rebrov is a tech serial entrepreneur and passionate software engineer. Andrei has more than 10 years in software development in different areas – Logistics, Finance and E-commerce. He is also a founder of successful online subscription business and space launch booking company, Precious Payload. Andrei is passionate about space, asteroid mining and astrophysics.
SpaceWatch.Global thanks Andrei Rebrov of Precious Payload for the interview.