Aims at real-time Earth observation data

SAN FRANCISCO — After focusing on optical communications for more than 20 years, Hedron CEO Baris Erkmen has a clear view of the challenges and opportunities the technology presents.

Since receiving a PhD in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a thesis on optical communications, Erkmen has designed, developed, prototyped and deployed optical technology for space, airborne and terrestrial applications. His career has taken him from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Google’s Project Loon, the Facebook Connectivity Lab and Project Taara, a wireless optical extension of the fiber optic backbone from X, the research and development lab for Google’s parent company Alphabet.

In March 2022, Erkmen joined California-based Hedron, a startup building a space-data relay network for optical and radio frequency data.

What is your role at Hedron?

CEO and CTO. We are a fairly early stage company, so it’s good to have common titles. Our mission is to build a modernized communications infrastructure for earth observation satellites. The way we communicate with our earth observation satellites is quite frankly archaic. We have beautiful instruments up there. We have consumers down here who can do an incredible amount of processing on cloud computing platforms. The pipe between the two is stuck in the 1960s. That’s what we’re trying to change.

What brought you to Hedron?

What excited me about Project Taara was that it was not an engineering demonstration project. We needed a product, something you could get off the factory floor and distribute in the terrestrial telecommunications market. Telcos are very price sensitive and need good performance metrics. I went through the humbling experience of taking an engineering prototype and turning it into a product that works well.

Around that time, people started talking about optical intersatellite links. I thought that since I learned so much from this experience of turning a prototype into a product, wouldn’t it be amazing if I could apply the same principles to a space environment. It was around that time that Hedron and I crossed paths.

What is unique about Hedron?

We will support automatic networking in space. We need to support multi-access [points] so that more satellites can talk to the earth’s dish. Planning must take place in the background. Satellite operators send their packets to a network and the network takes care of it. The data is displayed at the other end.

Terrestrial, that’s what we take for granted. The terrestrial technology must be deployed in a space environment, and adoption has been slow. That is where we see an opportunity. Optical plays a strategic role in that, but it is not the only thing we focus on.

Apart from the technology, we focus on creating a network that is modular and scalable. Nowhere in the world is the communication network a uniform grid of interconnected towers, where the whole thing comes down if one of them is knocked over. It’s seamless and everything works together. You can have 5G in a shopping mall. You go outside, walk 100 meters and you have 3G service. That kind of architecture must be rolled out into space.

What’s next for Hedron?

We are moving forward on three fronts. We have a satellite that is in the integration phase. It is a technology demonstrator. We hope in the next year to set it up and to validate that we can do the basic technological parts of ingesting data in orbit and relaying data down to the ground.

Commercially, we are focused on the first cluster. Think of it as rolling out mobile networks to a city. We have a neighborhood of earth observation satellites. If we were able to deploy some connectivity in orbit, it would improve their connectivity by more than double, and it would cut their latency by more than a factor of five. We’re focused on understanding how that solution can help customers and figuring out if there’s a meaningful relationship to set up there so we can spend the next two years building it and implementing it.

Last but not least, we are focused on optical communication. It is a strategic part of our infrastructure. We believe there is a possibility of disruption in the market. We focus on an internal design.

It can be challenging to transmit optical signals through the Earth’s atmosphere. How can it be solved?

What you do in many networks where there are links that are not reliable is to go for spatial diversity. Then the question becomes the economics of that solution. Can you afford to have 10 optical ground stations for one link, for example? This is where the industry has work to do. I’m part of the industry, so this is self-reflection more than finger-wagging.

What do you recommend?

Ground stations need to be much more economical, robust and portable, not fixed assets like telescopes that cannot move and cost a lot of money to set up. The barrier here is the economics of ground stations and the ability to place them.

I’ve done some studies myself and others have done studies that show you need five to nine times more ground stations than the number of links you want to support. You also need diversity of sites, you need them to be separated by more than 1000 kilometers. It is solvable.

Point-to-point optical signals are more difficult to jam or intercept than RF signals. With spatial diversity in your terrestrial network, data moves through terrestrial networks. Does it compromise safety?

I don’t think it’s fair to say that the network is no longer secure because you have fiber in the network. If you can make security for one segment of the network a non-issue, it allows you to focus your resources on making the other side more secure. Use all your resources to secure the fiber section.

If you want real security, one of the things that is interesting is the fact that at optical frequencies we are able to exploit the quantum nature of light. While we are at the beginning of figuring out how to exploit it, we have shown that we can do it. Therefore, optical has operational advantages such as being narrow beams and point-to-point. Over the next 10 years, it also has physics-based advantages that could make it actually quite a bit safer to use.

Do you need to install optical communication stations in the mountains or in the desert?

The reason for doing so is because the probability of cloud is lower there. But no. Seattle, isn’t great because it’s cloudy and rainy most of the year, but you certainly don’t need to go to the middle of the Mojave Desert to set up a ground station. There are plenty of dry places that have good weather. And again, if you have diversity, you’re not dependent on a particular site always being available. It becomes far more manageable.

Has the war in Ukraine changed your view in any way?

Commercial companies played a significant role in revealing what was going on. But if you notice, everything is still archive. It’s because of the latency. It takes tens of minutes, sometimes hours, to get this data. What happened has already happened. What you see is the wreckage left behind.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get information with a few minutes delay and respond? That’s the piece I think is missing. The current conflict is helping, but it hasn’t necessarily unlocked everyone’s imagination because what’s possible isn’t yet obvious.

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