Your company ConstellR develops satellites with specialist cameras that can recognize whether plants are getting enough water. What exactly does this involve?
Max Gulde: Ultimately, it’s about preventing food crops in major growing areas around the world from suffering heat stress. When plants are short of water, they can’t put as much energy into fruit production. Harvests are poorer. Satellites have been used since the 1970s to detect when crops are wilting. These systems measure the change in color. When plants wilt, they break down chlorophyll, the substance that gives them their green color. But by then it’s already too late. Our process, by contrast, notices heat stress within just a few hours. If it’s too dry, plants transpire less water. This causes the temperature on the leaves’ surface to slowly increase. Our satellite technology is able to detect when the temperature changes by just a few tenths of one degree Celsius. Farmers can then irrigate dry areas of the field. That not only helps the crops but also saves water because you can irrigate in a more targeted way.
You founded ConstellR around two years ago. How’s it going?
Gulde: The first camera system is already in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS). In the next three years, we will produce five satellites fitted with our camera system. They are about the size of a chest freezer and weigh around 80 kilograms. We will probably use SpaceX rockets to transport them. We’re already working with some of the ten biggest agribusinesses worldwide and also with smaller firms that have shown great interest in the satellite data.
Could you have imagined all this a few years ago when you decided to set up a company?
Gulde: My co-founder Marius Bierdel and I were a little bit clueless about how we approached things to begin with. At that time, we were working at the Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics, the Ernst-Mach-Institut EMI in Freiburg, in the System Solutions department. At some point, people from the European Space Agency (ESA) started telling us that our technology was a real breakthrough. The problem of measuring temperatures using small satellites was one that nobody had been able to solve so accurately before us. But it was difficult at the outset. We submitted more than ten applications for public funding and all of them were rejected – by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and by the European Union’s Horizon funding program. It was only later that we understood: a satellite mission is so expensive and success so uncertain that our work was still a high-risk project. Its profile simply didn’t fit with the typical funding programs for projects.