Stratospheric balloon company Urban Sky has closed a $9.75 million Series A round to scale its Earth imaging operations and expand its data products.
The 14-person startup has mostly been conducting tasking missions for customers in the Rocky Mountain region — and bringing in millions in revenue doing so — but that’s far from where their ambition ends. With the Series A financing, Urban Sky aims to build out a routine catalogue of refreshed data over highly populated areas and other areas of interest for customers, CEO Andrew Antonio said in a recent interview.
The company, which primarily serves environmental monitoring, insurance and oil and gas customers, is also developing additional sensors as it looks to scale. In addition to the natural color optical images that it offers today, Urban Sky is developing sensors for near-infrared imagery and long-wave infrared imagery. The latter sensor, which the startup calls HotSpot, has already been demonstrated to monitor wildfires in real time as part of a NASA grant and support from the Air Force.
Urban Sky is taking a different approach than other remote sensing companies that use stratospheric balloons, Antonio explained. The Denver, Colorado-based startup has developed small stratospheric balloons that are reusable — a first, Antonio said — that can be deployed from the back of a standard pickup truck. Combining reuse and mobile deployment of these “Microballoons” has brought costs way down, he said.
“The vision here is that we will be the SpaceX of the stratosphere,” Antonio added, referring to how SpaceX’s development of reusable rocket boosters introduced a sea change in the launch industry.
Urban Sky was founded in 2019 by Antonio and CTO Jared Leidich. The two worked together at World View, a company that’s developing high-altitude stratospheric balloons for remote sensing and space tourism, but that’s not where the company was initially conceived. That happened earlier, when the two co-founders worked together on Paragon Space Development’s StratEx program. (That program culminated with Google executive Alan Eustace completing the highest-ever stratosphere jump from a balloon.)
In preparation for Eustace’s jump, Paragon would fly latex balloons for subsystem flight tests, and often those balloons would be outfitted with GoPros. The pair looked at that data — collected for just a couple hundred dollars — and realized there was an opportunity to build a small balloon architecture for remote sensing.
That no other ballooning company has aimed for reusability comes down to a materials engineering issue, because balloons have to be ultra lightweight, nearly impermeable and low cost, Antonio said. The other issue comes at the end of the balloon’s mission. Other companies end missions by destroying the balloon — letting it pop in the upper atmosphere or ripping a hole in one of the sides. Urban Sky has patented a termination and descent mechanism that allows the Microballoons to stay intact.
That’s helped Urban Sky drive costs per image down to around $5-$10 per square kilometer for 10-centimeter resolution. In comparison, Earth imaging company Maxar’s cheapest image might come in at around $20-$25 per square kilometer at a much lower 28-centimeter resolution, Antonio said.
In addition to the mobile deployment system, the company has also developed a simulator of stratospheric flight profiles that it uses to predict the flight path of a balloon, starting backwards from the area that it wants to image. Based on that target area, the software will back-predict where Urban Sky will need to launch from.
“It’s like currents of the ocean,” Antonio said of the stratosphere. “You’re so high up that generally you’re very accurate in terms of your prediction and where the balloon flies.”
The Series A financing round was co-led by New Legacy Ventures, Lerer Hippeau and Lavrock Ventures, with participation from Catapult Ventures, Union Labs VC, DA Ventures (a Denver Angels Affiliate) and TenOneTen Ventures.