Featured innovator

Houston entrepreneur using cloud-based AI technology in space and satellite applications

In a decade, there will be five times as many satellites as there is now, and we're going to need a better way of keeping track of them. Cognitive Space, lead by Guy de Carufel, has a solution. Courtesy of Guy de Carufel

There are around 2,000 satellites up above our heads, but in the next 10 years, that figure will have surpassed 10,000. As the number of satellites goes up, it'll be harder for companies to manage them.

Houston-based Cognitive Space lead by Founder and CEO Guy de Carufel recognizes this as an opportunity to engage artificial intelligence and cloud technology. De Carufel spoke with InnovationMap about his company, how it will grow, and the role Houston plays in the evolving space exploration industry.

InnovationMap: How did you come up with the idea for your company and technology?

Guy de Carufel: From my experience working at [JSC], I understand the traditional way of commanding spacecraft and how you interface with that from the ground station point of view. In the industry, it's changing very quickly in terms of new companies that are launching constellations of satellites. We're currently at an inflection point where the satellite industry is expected to grow up to five folds in the next 10 years because of the large companies building up these satellites. There are around 2,000 satellites active right now, and that's expected to grow to over 10,000 in the next 10 years.

With all these satellites, you're going to need to manage these assets. Having an operator look at each satellite is not going to cut it. It's not going to be enough for all these satellites. I've been investing and researching in AI technology and machine learning, and I came up with a different way of approaching the problem, and it's a cloud-based approach to [managing the satellites.]

IM: What got you interested in space initially?

GC: Just the excitement of the new frontier. It's still one of the only places that we have a lot of exploring to do, and that got me into space in general and then aerospace engineering, which I got my master's degree in.

IM: What are some of the challenges of introducing a new technology in such a rapidly changing industry?

GC: Traditionally, the aerospace industry is very conservative and doesn't adopt change very quickly. Especially from NASA's point of view and large corporations' point of view, it takes a lot of effort to implement changes — and there's reasons behind that. Space crafts are very expensive to launch and mistakes are very costly. The industry doesn't necessarily like to take too many risks, but that's changing quickly. Now, there are a lot of startups in what's called "new space." You have a lot of companies being funded by venture capital. These startups are willing to take a lot more risks.

IM: How is this growth in satellites going to affect things here on earth?

GC: One of the reasons there's been new interest in space is there are new market forces that are pushing the industry in new directions where you have new uses for space assets. One of them is obviously worldwide connectivity, so internet from space. You have a lot of companies investing billions into that.

The other market force is to have real-time insight into what's going on in the world through imagery. There's a need for tracking transportation and logistics, as well as farming and mining. All of this will have a profound impact on the economy in general.

Industrial IoT, which basically just means everything will be connected, and in order to operate these remote devices, you're going to have to have real-time knowledge of what's going on, and one of the ways to do that is with real-time imagery. It's not something that can be done with today's technology, and we want to be able to position ourselves to be able to enable that market trend.

IM: Has NASA changed with the times? Does it still have the same role in space exploration in "new space"?

GC: The role of NASA has changed over the years. It's changed from initially being a national pride to be the first on the moon and the astronauts were test pilots and the soldier type. When the space station came up and the shuttle program, astronauts became scientists and educators from all sorts of backgrounds. NASA has evolved considerably over the years, and now it is evolving again because of the changes in the industry. NASA will always be relevant, but now it does have to change in how it will play in this new economy. Commercial entities are going to be a large part of exploration, but NASA does have a role to play in setting the roadmap and logistics, as well as sharing the expertise it has from 60 years.

IM: Is Houston a good place for aerospace startups?

There's starting to be a strong startup ecosystem here, but the focus is still medical and oil and gas, much less so aerospace. I do hope that the community realizes that there's a lot of talent here for aerospace. If I were to suggest anything, it would be to have an accelerator program with a focus on space.

IM: Where is Cognitive Space at with its technology and business plan? What are some goals you have for the company?

GC: We're still very early. We're building up our product, and we have a functional prototype. We are in discussion with most major players in the industry and with various government entities.

By next year we will have major contracts, and growing our team to 15 to 20 people. We'll have a commercial product by then and servicing some commercial players. Five years from now, we'll probably be in many different verticals, spawning from what we have now to really expand and apply our systems to as many applications as possible.

IM: Who are Cognitive Space's clients?

GC: Our focus is on earth observation satellite companies — the companies that are developing small satellites with different sensors onboard to take imagery or different spectrum, say hyperspectral or optical. We're focused on that market. What we provide for them is this autonomous tasking solution for their earth observation systems.

We're starting with a niche market but it's growing very quickly. It's expected to grow to $8 billion industry in 5 years. But the technology we develop will be applicable to many different industries.

IM: What's next for Cognitive Space?

GC: We've been focused mostly on developing our prototype and validating the market, but we are looking for investment in a Seed round this year.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

A Houston space medicine research organization has partnered with a video game maker that has created surgery simulation technology. Photo via levelex.com

A Houston-based organization affiliated with NASA has teamed up with a video game company to advance virtual simulation in space medicine.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, in partnership with NASA in a consortium led by Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has advanced a new approach for space medicine using video game technology by collaborating with video game company, Level Ex.

"We discovered Level Ex through a process of landscaping the many virtual simulation companies that were out there," says Andrew Peterman Director of Information System at TRISH. "We especially noted those that were on the cutting edge of the technology."

Based in Houston, TRISH aims to collaborate with the best and the brightest to revolutionize space health, providing grants to companies with innovative concepts. With Level Ex, they found a new approach to decode earthly medical technologies in space.

Level Ex, a Chicago-based company created in 2015 was founded to provide training games for doctors to use to practice surgeries and procedures. The games are interactive, with the virtual patient reacting to the actions of the player. The training simulations consist of in-depth and physics-driven medical simulations that are verified by doctors in their advisory board.

"We're hoping to completely change the ways that doctors stay up to speed," says Level Ex founder-and-CEO Sam Glassnberg.

With their ongoing collaboration with TRISH, they have a challenge that's out of this world. In space, astronauts have limited space for medical tools and run on a limited crew. This makes providing basic medical training to all astronauts especially important.

Especially since the body begins to react to the new environmental conditions of space missions. The effects can be small or lead to new changes or challenges for astronauts who take on long-range missions. Astronauts may see their bodies slowly start to lose bone and muscle mass. Their fluid begins to shift toward their head, leading to increased risks of hypertension and thrombosis.

All of these are challenges NASA is working to address with the help of gaming technology from Level Ex that innovates the technology with higher-level capability and training. Combining video game technology and medical simulation applications to incorporate and explore the interplay of environmental conditions found in space.

"What we really liked about Level Ex is that they have an amazing team both on the clinical and technical side, says Peterman. "They are a group of former big-name game developers who along with clinical experts have married technology and medicine with their platform producing full in engine physics-driven real simulations rather than video playback."

The astronauts will train using simulations that allow them to practice a procedure in zero gravity conditions and even simulate the gravity conditions of Mars. The game will also allow astronauts to get their own on-screen avatar with their medical information thus allowing fellow astronauts to gain more practice and experience with fewer variables in space.

The advanced medical simulation platform has potential for commercial uses on earth, improving the range of the technology to simulate new, rare, and complex scenarios across a range of medical specialties, allowing doctors to practice a range of difficult scenarios without putting patient lives at risk.

Peterman says that the partnership is expected to continue into the future for immediate applications along with other innovations in astronaut healthcare, including autonomous frameworks to provide medical knowledge in outer space.