Rema Matevosyan is the CEO and cofounder of Near Space Labs, which builds robotic platforms for very high resolution and rapid response imagery from the stratosphere.

What’s the elevator pitch for Near Space Labs?

Rema: Near Space Labs is an earth imaging company for climate resilience. We fly robots to the stratosphere and from that vantage point we’re able to capture the highest resolution and the most rapid data set about our planet.

What led you to found Near Space?

It’s actually kind of surprising to me that I ended up in aerospace. I was born and raised in Armenia and we didn’t have a space program or a thriving aerospace scene. But we did have a very good math education so I followed that. I think what kept me open and curious was growing up with a grandma who was a physicist, a grandfather who was an electronics engineer, and a mom who was a computer scientist. Both of my grandparents were amateur astronomers so I grew up in an environment where just curiosity about space—and technology in general—was very heightened. It was always more of a dream for me to be associated with or part of the aerospace scene. For the longest time, it didn’t even feel real or possible. The way I ended up doing it was by starting my own company and my own little space program.

While doing our PhD my cofounder and I were trying to figure out how to configure satellite constellations to provide very granular, very high response and reaction time to capture data across the globe. So all of our research was focused on orbital dynamics for satellite constellations and figuring out what types of sensors are these things going to need for Earth data that actually supports climate resilience and climate adaptation in a world where disasters are much more common and much more severe. We realized that we needed alternatives to satellite imagery and that was the context that led us to founding Near Space. We had the idea to do this balloon-based stratospheric imaging approach in Moscow, but it was clear that the best way to have a deep tech company is still the United States. So we started the company here in the US.

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How do your stratospheric robots work?

The robots were fully invented and designed by us to effectively navigate the stratosphere. It’s the layer of atmosphere between 60,000 and 100,000 feet in altitude. That’s about twice the cruising altitude of planes and much lower than satellites.In many ways it’s an environment that is closer to Mars than Earth, but the reason capturing data from the stratosphere is advantageous is you’re able to see areas at a very large scale and high resolution.

The robot itself essentially operates as a robotic arm. We have a device with very intricate guidance, navigation, and control that is able to stabilize and capture very high resolution details—we can see a detail the size of a baseball from 100,000 feet. That requires a lot of stabilization and a lot of very intricate algorithms. We also have a proprietary sensor for capturing optical data and we’ll be launching thermal infrared in the near future. My dream sensor right now is hyperspectral shortwave infrared. It’s a much harder sensor to build and launch, but it would help detect methane 10 times faster than from a satellite. 

You’ve been flying balloon missions for years—at this point, do you see technical  or market risk as your primary challenge?

As a company we’ve always taken a very disciplined approach to developing our technology. We’re building something incredibly hard and something that’s completely new. That means we have to think about not just technical challenges like how long the platform can stay aloft, but how much it costs to build, how long it takes to launch, how long does it take to process data, how do you reference that data, and how do you deliver it to customers. You can’t consider any of those things in isolation.

At the end of the day, I’m here because I love building things. But those things need to have a very tightly coupled commercial aspect and the solutions that we build need to have appealing market opportunities. The most crucial question for us is not whether we can build the biggest or heaviest balloon, it’s who’s going to pay for it and what are they really paying for?

In the commercial markets we’ve had great success with insurance companies and power utilities, for example. These customers want data, computer vision, and intelligence. Balloons in the stratosphere are an incredibly effective way to capture tons of data at very high quality and very quickly.We’re five times faster than an airplane and one balloon can capture an area that would require 5-10 satellites in multiple orbits. For example, our balloons can capture New York City in 10 cm detail in four or five hours. The stratosphere is very effective for that and unlocks new commercial use cases. 

Why is this ultra-high-resolution image data so important for your customers? What are they able to do with Near Space data that they couldn’t do with data from a less high-resolution Earth imaging satellite?

I’ll give you a couple of examples. So what resolution means is essentially the size of the smallest objects that you can distinguish in imagery and the size of your pixel. So for insurance, for instance, they can see if a house is missing shingles or the parts of a roof that were thrown out after a catastrophe. That requires very high resolution. Another use case is in the construction industry, where you can see construction beams and how walls are being built up.

In the longterm do you see yourself competing with companies like Planet doing whole Earth imaging from orbit or are your balloon deployments more tactical and bespoke?

Our long term thesis is that the best approach for very high resolution, persistent Earth imagery is going to be from persistent platforms in the stratosphere. Our 10cm imagery provides a much higher resolution than is available from satellites, and it’s that level of detail that serves a multitude of mission critical use cases. For example, routine captures that track changes over time help with risk mitigation initiatives.  We also deploy on demand for catastrophic events like hurricanes or tornadoes, where we’re able to rapidly react and deliver damage reports to emergency responders that need to make fast resourcing decisions. In summary, regardless of the nature of the request, whether persistent, tactical or bespoke, the resolution and speed matters – ensuring more accurate decision making for a plethora of use cases across multiple industries.