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How Hilton Hotels, Bayer, and the World Wildlife Fund Are Investing in the Future in Space

By Vivienne Machi | October 17, 2023

      Via Satellite archive illustration

      LOS ANGELES – The business case for space-based remote sensing and other satellite derived technologies has surpassed the traditional military and big-government sectors. Companies and organizations from BP, to the World Wildlife Fund, to Hilton Hotels, shared stories last week about how they are building new tools to help their individual causes, fueled by satellite imagery, artificial intelligence, and lessons learned from the space world.

      The public faces of multiple big-name space companies were present at the inaugural Space Economy Summit on Oct. 11, from Lockheed Martin, to Planet, to Rocket Lab. But the event, hosted by The Economist in downtown Los Angeles, also provided a platform for multiple non-space sector companies to share how Earth observation (EO) data, and other space-based technologies are creating new business opportunities and improving their bottom lines. 

      For several non-traditional space companies in the agriculture and deforestation arenas, EO and remote sensing tools and data are helping their customers better manage crop yields, change agriculture practices to reflect climate change outcomes, and better predict areas of potential deforestation.

      Nearly a quarter of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector come from agriculture and forestry. Outcomes include depleted soil, water scarcity, and changing temperature, all of which lead to lower crop yields. 

      Bayer Crop Science is using artificial intelligence and space-based remote sensing to build digital tools that help farmers more easily gather and track data about their fields and crops. The company’s suite of digital farming tools includes applications that combine farm data with Bayer’s own data science, supported by satellite imagery. It has also developed in-field soil sensors that use geo-location to constantly monitor soil conditions such as moisture and nutrient levels. 

      Agriculture is “the new rocket science, because the main tools today that help agricultural events are remote sensing and artificial intelligence” Cristina Dalle Ore, Bayer’s head of remote sensing and geospatial intelligence, said at the Space Economy Summit. Dalle Ore’s background as an astrophysicist for NASA researching the outer solar system, was a perfect precedent to her current role, she said.

      “I was initially looking at where life came from, now I’m trying to retain life on this planet,” she noted. 

      Bayer needs a constant collection of satellite data at high temporal, spatial, and spectral resolutions, Dalle Ore said. Scalable and accurate sensors that can provide data “at the global level” are also needed, she added. 

      The World Wildlife Fund has also harnessed satellite imagery, machine-learning, and drone footage for various efforts, including biodiversity monitoring and forest conservation. The organization launched a digital tool dubbed Forest Foresight, which uses remote sensing data related to prior and ongoing deforestation events, to help scientists predict future occurrences. The goal is to use the tool to help reduce global deforestation by 30%.

      Using the tool, WWF was able to identify the specific spot where deforestation would occur, eight months before it began, said Becky Chaplin-Kramer, the organization’s global biodiversity lead scientist. Now, park rangers in Gabon have used the tool to target illegal gold-mining operations, and prevent about 30 hectares of deforestation, she added. 

      Space-based remote sensing has also enabled WWF to better survey and research mangrove forests around the world, and understand the effects of climate change and other threats on the plants, which have immense carbon storage and sequestration capabilities, Chaplin-Kramer said.

      Over the next five years, WWF is co-building an intergovernmental consortium that will assess the “societal benefits” of EO for conservation, agriculture, water resources, disasters, climate resilience, health, and social and environmental justice.

      The consortium, the Collaborative Network for Valuing Earth Information (CONVEI), includes NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as other key stakeholders, and will cost about $8.5 billion to stand up, per Chaplin-Kramer. “The insights gained through this new program of work on valuing EO will catalyze the next generation of satellite information to better support society’s most pressing decisions for people and the plane,” the WWF said in an online statement.

      Energy companies are also interested in the value of remote sensing data for carbon capture efforts. BP has been leveraging satellite data for that purpose, said Roger Rohatgi, the company’s vice-president and global head of design.

      BP is also interested in using artificial intelligence (AI) and sensing data to help better predict and prevent blackouts at power plants around the globe, such as in Africa where some populations experience up to 44 hours per month of blackouts, he said. 

      Beyond using space data to impact life on Earth, other firms are preparing for a future where they do business in space. The Hilton Hotel chain, for example, is working to bring its hospitality business to a future replacement for the International Space Station (ISS). 

      Last fall, Voyager Space announced Hilton would be the official hotel partner aboard its future free-flying commercial space station Starlab. Starlab is being developed under a 2021 contract with NASA worth $160 million, to replace the ISS, with a launch goal of 2028, and operations before the ISS is scheduled to decommission in 2030, per Voyager.

      Hilton is in charge of designing and developing the crew suites and communal areas of Starlab. While the main goal is to provide lodging and support for the station’s four crew members, space tourism could be further down the line, Hilton execs said. 

      The company has always been challenged to build in “unique locations, where the guest experience is paramount,” said Larry Traxler, Hilton’s senior vice president for global design services. In 2018, it opened the world’s first “underwater villa,” the Muraka Residence at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island. 

      But for Starlab, Hilton will have to tackle the issues of living in a low-G environment, and think about how to normalize the experience as much as possible when it comes to sleeping arrangements, circadian rhythms, smells, and light, he said.

      Designing for “thoughtful zoning” will be key, such as ensuring the cardio zones are situated far enough away from the galley so that sweat doesn’t float over into the dining area, Traxler noted. 

      While Starlab is one specific program to replace the ISS, Traxler didn’t rule out future opportunities for space hotel expansions. “We’re in 122 countries, and many of those [countries] have aspirations to be in space,” he noted. 

      The team is currently undergoing initial designing and human factors testing for Starlab in Houston, said Abby Dickes, chief marketing officer for Voyager Space.

      In the automotive industry, using space-based GPS technologies and AI tools are now commonplace, and manufacturers are just beginning to harness the potential of quantum computing for more efficient design and manufacturing, among other benefits. 

      Companies like BMW want to harness even more knowledge and tool kits from space to provide “ubiquitous connectivity” and autonomous mobility functions that can help in emergency situations, said Oliver Wick, senior technology scout for the BMW Group.

      For example, non-terrestrial connectivity solutions developed for communication on the Moon could help carmakers provide access to customers in extremely rural areas of the globe, he said at the summit. BMW has taken the lead to explore the opportunities of a non-terrestrial network under the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA), he added. The association is a global network of automakers, Tier-1 suppliers, and chip manufacturers, along with mobile and communication companies, and infrastructure vendors.

      Wick said he also sees many “connecting points” between the space and automotive industries when it comes to space-based data, new raw materials that could eventually be mined from space, in-space manufacturing, and, further down the line, human spaceflight. 

      “There are so many good technologies, processes, and people” in the space arena, Wick said. “I would like to transfer these ideas to the automotive industry.”