How a UK space startup plans to use satellites to measure energy wastage

Anthony Baker, CEO of Satellite Vu, speaks to Melissa Bradshaw about his vision for a ‘thermometer of the world’ and its place in our decarbonisation journey

Satellite Vu thermal image of Stanlow refinery, Liverpool
Satellite Vu thermal image of Stanlow refinery, Liverpool - Satellite Vu

With the built environment accounting for around a third of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, innovation around energy efficient and sustainable buildings has never been more welcome. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), energy consumption in buildings can be reduced by up to 80 per cent using proven technologies.

Satellite Vu, founded by Anthony Baker in 2016, is a tech start-up on a mission to make waves — infrared waves, specifically — in the area of monitoring the built environment, and the way that humans are using it. Equipped with infrared sensors capable of detecting the heat emissions from buildings all across the world, the company’s satellites will be able to gather real-time information several times a day. This data can provide valuable insights into energy efficiency, helping businesses to assess their carbon footprint and some of the key areas where energy is being wasted.

“The resolution we’re operating at is building-level resolution,” Baker told The Engineer. “The science agencies like ESA and NASA have 100m resolution, so one pixel equivalent to 100m. That’s good for farming, agriculture and counting trees, large features.

“The gap in the market is [the] human footprint. Humankind’s influence on the Earth, and how that is being measured, which is very much towards the climate agenda. We designed a satellite which is the highest resolution thermal imagery, which will be available next year on a commercial basis.”

Baker explained that the concept was born out of the realisation that we are in need of a more comprehensive view of these insights, of where the pollution is coming from in the supply chain, and this is something he believes needs to be measured through Earth observation.

“You can’t do it with drones and planes — you can only fly those where you’re allowed to fly them. With satellites, you can see the world,” Baker said.

“Typically, the science satellites might revisit once a week or maybe even less. If you’re looking at the pattern of life, things change within a day. When we get all of our satellites launched — eight in total — you’ll be able to look every couple of hours [to see] what’s changed. You’d be able to look at night and day, peak hours and off-peak hours, and really determine what’s going on inside these structures, how energy is being used and wasted, on a global scale in a consistent way.”

Satellite Vu could image a city and immediately point to its worst ten per cent of the buildings in terms of energy efficiency

Satellite Vu’s Mid-Wave Infrared (MWIR) 3.5m resolution thermal imaging satellite is bigger than a typical shoebox satellite, but has been miniaturised as much as possible in order to develop a cost-effective solution, Baker said. The 1m3 satellite weighs 180kg and is planned for launch around May 2023, onboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. A further contract with SpaceX has recently been signed to launch a second satellite — a clone of the first — in 2024.

“There have been huge challenges in getting infrared satellites launched and constructed at a decent price,” said Baker. “As a rule of thumb, if you double the size of the satellite it costs four times as much.

“There are engineering compromises you’re having to make on image quality. Recovering those with the smart algorithms and applications we are building allows us to derive the insights that customers want to buy.”

Construction of the satellite has been outsourced to Guildford-based Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).

“Our team is all about the data science behind it,” Baker explained. “We take the satellite image and then download it and do all the other things to make it smart — it’s much like your iPhone, quite a low-cost camera, but the smart part is all the applications and the algorithms that stack the images. It’s actually a video camera, so we can have 25 frames per second, and we stack those on top of each other to get more insights, better resolution, better contrast.”

As for the insights, Satellite Vu promises data on a range of environmental issues — from tracking energy waste and gas exports through to monitoring industrial facility activities, thermal water pollution and wildfires.


“If you’re looking at storage or you’re interested in whether this coal plant is on or off, we can look at that from a very detailed level,” Baker said. “We can tell how many turbines are running, or the hot steam in the pipes, really looking at the granularity of that.”

The data could also shine a light on greenwashing, he pointed out — production sites that are claiming to be ‘green’ could be exposed if their activities are less so.

“We can tell from refineries which oil tanks are full and empty, whether they’re holding cold gas or warm oil. You can look at the storage, the consumption, throughout the day and night because of the frequency of our data.”

Satellite Vu could image a city and immediately point to its worst ten per cent of the buildings in terms of energy efficiency, Baker added. Whilst this is traditionally done by hand through EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) ratings, Baker pointed out the inconsistencies in this practice.

“They’re not all about wasted energy, they’re about how the house has been built, and it doesn’t reflect on how the house is being operated,” he said. “You might have a highly efficient house but if you leave all the windows open, run the heating all day and night, air conditioning if it’s a commercial building — you’re still wasting energy. We can spot that and we can really help people focus on that.”

With new Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) set to come into play by 2025 requiring landlords to improve their EPC ratings, Baker said that the insights will help building owners identify what they’ll need to do to ensure consistency with new regulations.

“We have the capability of touching everybody’s lives,” he said. “For climate, I think there’s a new era for Earth observation satellites to help people resolve issues, identify the worst cases, but also give the transparency — if you had an upgrade of your building, was it as good as you thought? This company that I’ve put my pensions into a green fund with, is it as green as it can be? That might be easier in the western world, but if you’ve got a factory anywhere in the developing world where there is less transparency, how can you be sure?”

Comparison of thermal image over Liverpool City central taken by Landsat 8 (left) and Satellite Vu (right)

Satellite Vu is currently allowing customers the opportunity for early access to data before launch, through imaging carried out by a plane with an onboard camera which has imaged the US, the UK, Netherlands, Paris and Berlin. The company downgrades the data so that it looks like it’s from the satellite, giving customers a sense of what they can buy when it’s launched, Baker explained.

Ultimately, he feels that the space tech industry has a key role to play in the Net Zero challenge — but this includes ensuring its own practices are sustainable at every stage.

“Just as building efficiency has been driven by high energy costs, the satellite and launch sector is also being driven by cost. So the fact that Elon Musk, who we’re flying with twice now, is reusing his components and the rocket multiple times means it’s going to be more energy efficient,” he said.

“From the satellite side, I’ve launched satellites which are the size of a mini bus and took years and years, thousands of people to make. That carbon footprint has got to be larger — just look at the size of the building it’s been made in, compared with going down to Surrey Satellite where they’ve got a very compact, efficient way of building satellites in much shorter time frames. The impact’s got to be a lot less and the industry’s moving there already.”

The big footprint the sector really needs to be concerned about, with production and launch of satellites, is the cluttering of space which is another natural resource, he added.

“We shouldn’t leave our junk behind. Our satellite is manoeuvrable, we can avoid other objects, and at the end of life we’ll bring it down so that it disposes of itself and burns up into nothing.

“If we’re selling an ESG product to financial services, you’ve got to look from within as well. Getting your own house in order is super important, and so we take that seriously.”