RAFAŁ ROMANOWSKI: Science fiction?
JAKUB DZIWISZ, CEO of Orbify: - I’ve always liked it. Even when I was a child I would get lost in books by Stanisław Lem or the famous ‘Wielka, większa i największa’ (’Big, Bigger and Biggest’) by Jerzy Broszkiewicz, which describes the lives of people in space. But I also enjoyed other fantasy books as well. Of course, along the way, also the film canon like Star Wars and the Star Trek series.
Do you still like it?
- Sure. And I’m learning more and more about Space. It's good to discover books like ‘The Martian’ and ‘The Hail Mary Project’ by Andy Weir. It's really fascinating how space continues to inspire writers, filmmakers and photographers. After all, in the realm of culture, technological progress or exploring other worlds this is still one of the main sources of creative inspiration. But space can also be a way to help people realise how small we are in the grand scheme of the universe or explain eternal truths or dangers threatening humanity. Just think of the gigantic success of the Netflix series ‘Don't Look Up’, about a comet inevitably headed for a collision with Earth.
Yes, such images are very evocative. But do the inhabitants of planet Earth realise just how significant an impact the Space has on them?
- More and more, I think. But it depends on many factors. Including the aforementioned trend of culture or pop culture. People like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking are incredibly inspiring. Such people do outstanding work. It’s worth learning from them.
I always feel that when we measure our earthly problems against the scale of the universe, we rarely realise just how big it is...
- Oh yes, but that doesn't surprise me at all. The vastness of Space is just hard to imagine. Just knowing that the light from a star that we can see from Earth was emitted into space billions of years ago. And the light being emitted right now will take just as long to get here. Then there’s the big bang theory. The structure of stars, often consisting of plasma. Generations of stars or the formation of planets, which takes billions of years and is subject to specific regularities. Black holes, which still haven’t been fully explained...
That’s true. When pondering the universe, it ceases to matter whether you're stuck in rush-hour traffic right now or whether you'll be able to have a barbecue on the weekend. Our earthly problems diminish in the blink of an eye.
- Scale is very important. You can think of Space as an infinite enigma, where Sirius, shining in the sky, is better known to us than the farthest galaxies. But, at the same time, it is a source of tremendous knowledge. About ourselves. About the conditions in which we live. About the context in which we find ourselves.
And this is where Orbify comes in. It’s a bridge between us and cosmic data that’s intended to help us in our daily existence. Where’s your place in all of this?
- Allow me to illustrate. Almost a thousand satellites, from which humanity obtains data, can be found km above us, in orbit around the Earth. Then there's the International Space Station, then the moon and other planets. It's only by gazing at the entire solar system that you see how huge it all is. And yet there are other galaxies, nebulae. Each of these areas is a source of knowledge and data. They need to be catalogued, organised, and then used for specific purposes. Imagine it like a toy factory. Our role would be to sort the blocks and pack them into the appropriate boxes. So that innovators can easily use them to build fantastic structures.
Space ignites our senses. But also, as technology advances, we’re seeing the popularisation of space themes. The media sells it brilliantly. Felix Baumgartner jumps with a Red Bull in his hand from 39 km above the Earth. Elon Musk sends SpaceX rockets into space; Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, goes on tourist flights around the Earth with friends. It seems that people are increasingly wearing spacesuits, getting on rockets and taking off into space.
- Yes. Our perspective is changing. Along with the growing wave of such initiatives, Space is increasingly within our reach. As you mentioned, it's no longer just the domain of NASA, the European Space Agency, or the Russians. Space travel is starting to become available to an increasingly larger pool of people. And that trend will continue to develop.
Space is getting crowded. Since Richard Branson's pioneering flights, we’ve now reached the point where countries like South Korea have their own space agencies.
- However, this is still the domain of the rich. So in a sense the ecosystem of space is still pretty hermetic. Translating this into the business realm, it's still an insurmountable barrier for smaller organisations, startups or businesses that want to have something to do with space.
Is that changing?
- Thousands of people are trying to do something interesting in this area. But they're usually backed by big space companies, and these are millionaires.
Let me ask a different question: does Orbify want to change that?
- Wait. We don't fly into space. We don't have - at least not yet - our own satellites or rockets. For now, we want to make space more useful for everyone. We want to make it less hermetic, democratise it, and accelerate the pace of innovation. And all thanks to greater accessibility to data from which smaller companies can create/produce something useful.
Do I understand correctly that if we put space in the hands of smaller companies, it will benefit humanity?
- Of course. A great example of this is the Internet. If it weren't for smaller players entering the Internet sphere, we wouldn't even be talking now. After all, we’re hearing each other through Zoom, we are in different countries, and yet we see each other on the screen and hear our own words. We're used to the fact that this is possible, but 20-30 years ago it was not that simple. From the days of beeping modems, megabyte floppy disks, we’ve reached the age of 5G Internet, self-learning machines, artificial intelligence, and the web controlling virtually every aspect of our lives.
Are you saying that it happened because small, innovative companies started using the Internet?
- The development of the Internet was based on this. From strictly military technologies to the current democratisation of the web. If we didn't open it up to companies willing to install their own ideas here, there would be no iPhones, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, or even Google. The Internet would be part of a military communications systems or an academic network where one professor sends a student's thesis to another.
As we speak, Elon Musk's satellites are travelling in single file through the sky. They are intended to provide high-speed internet access even in the Sahara desert, in Mozambique or on uninhabited Pacific islands. The Internet is everywhere.
- And while it can still be ‘astronomically’ expensive, it's also proof of how the Internet has taken over the world; for 20, 30 years the Internet has been the perfect place for small businesses to test out their solutions. And they’ve changed the world.
Now the idea is to take that exuberant development into space as well.
- That’s the gist of it. It's more about capturing key data through remote sensing, observing the Earth from space, and with that data driving the next stage of the world's development. Like the Internet before it, remote sensing can now become an area in which many companies can test or develop their ideas. We’re getting closer to that.
Where can satellite data be used even more?
- The first example that comes to mind is looking for a parking space using an app. Right now ground-based sensors and beacons can do it, but it's still a fairly expensive and complicated solution. And often unreliable. Relatively simple geolocation, satellite data and real-time observation are needed to improve this system. If real-time satellite transmission could be used, that would certainly be a breakthrough.
It’s really tempting here to use that 1969 space quote about one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. You're also taking a big step forward with Orbify. You want to integrate existing data, but also take advantage of data that have thus far been more scattered or even unused. For everyday needs.
- For some, space is chaos, for others it is an extremely logical, quantifiable order. A kind of magma that needs to be sorted through. That’s Orbify’s most important task right now. We want to give innovators easy access to data and ease of processing. Except that access to data alone is not enough. Innovators want to be able, for example, to process images of the entire planet. That’s terabytes of data. This is impossible to achieve on regular computers. They need access to professional and dedicated cloud computing for these processes. Orbify wants to provide them with a product to build applications, to aggregate and post-process data.
You say that processed this way will prove useful in many situations. I’m talking about seismics, climate monitoring, various services.
- This kind of data is useful in a great many situations. For example, in operations conducted by the Coast Guard, who keep an eye out for illegal fishing. Or firefighters - in order to know where the driest soil is, i.e. potential fire-starting points. Farmers, foresters and biologists can also benefit from properly prepared data. Of course, these are not one-off reports, but a sphere controlled by a complex app.
That sounds out-of-this-world. Sorry for the cliché, but it’s quite evocative.
- The potential of the Internet, combined with space data, is endless. Our job is to deliver a product, to build a useful data processing app. As I keep saying: the key here is to make it easy for entrepreneurs to build apps for their end users. In other words, people are using Orbify to build solutions that use space data to help others. We need to simplify the use of this data.
You're reaching previously unattainable heights. You’re providing tools to handle previously underutilised data. But you’re not good Samaritans who are doing this for free. A benevolent approach is one thing, but you have to make money somewhere so that you don't have to contribute to the project and develop it indefinitely.
- I'm not reinventing the wheel here. The more an app developer consumes the data we provide, the more they pay. The SaaS model is known in every other technological solution of the digital age. In fact, Orbify is transferring many IT ideas to the space industry.
How long does it take to develop a solution like this one?
- I’m fortunate in that I work with a fantastic team, and within 10 months of our first conversation we were able to come up with an initial solution. The first users already have access to the platform. This is quite an achievement. I would not have been able to take on this challenge alone.
Who do you have on your team? Are they technologists, scientists, astronauts? Or have you brought Musk's assistant to Poland?
- Noooo (laughs). Orbify is half representatives of the scientific community and half people who have cut their teeth on earth observation. Our challenges are also split down the middle, because part of the team has to build technological progress at Orbify, and the other part has to let the world know it exists and find customers.
The latter probably won't be difficult...
- Most importantly, it will not be difficult to build an application based on remote sensing data. Operationally, it will be as simple as setting up an online store. We want to be the first to make this possible to a wider range of customers.
The winner is always whoever is first in space.
- Pioneers don't always win. But they certainly have the best chance of success. So wasting such an opportunity would not be our style.