Alumni Pioneering Edge Computing in Space – USC Viterbi

Jeremy Allam, Marcel Lariviere and Mark Lorden in the USC/ISI clean room

Jeremy Allam and Marcel Lariviere, recent USC Viterbi alumni, are back at USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) this month. They are not here as students, but as co-founders of their company, Exo-Space, bringing with them a device that will greatly improve the processing and delivery of satellite imagery, enabling near real-time satellite imagery.

Exo Space Edge Computing Processor

This processor is so sensitive that it can only be processed in a “clean room” – a room with a very low concentration of particles in the air. The ISI cleanroom, which is pressurized to keep it clean and contamination-free, was just the place to put the device through final checks.

This is Allam and Lariviere’s company’s first product and if all goes well it will be attached to a satellite and launched into space in October 2023. In space, it will deliver satellite imagery to its customers in near real time – with a delivery time orders of magnitude faster than what is currently available.

The potential applications and customer list for this innovative processor are vast – near real-time imaging of forest fires; identifying the size and location of plastic in the ocean; tracking down illegal fishermen off the coast of Thailand – these are just a few of the current use cases the Exo-Space team is working on. And these are all applications that will only exist if faster satellite image processing is possible.

It all started at ISI (and in the carpool lane)

Allam and Lariviere graduated from USC Viterbi School of Engineering in 2018 with Masters degrees in Astronautical Engineering. During their studies, both came to ISI to work on satellite-oriented projects with Dave Barnhart, Director of SERC and Professor in the Department of Astronautical Engineering, at the Space Engineering Research Center (SERC). SERC is a space center at ISI and is supported by both ISI and the USC Viterbi Department of Astronautical Engineering.

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Colleagues, friends and carpoolers, Allam and Lariviere would often drive home from ISI and discuss the idea of ​​starting some sort of satellite company. Allam said, “After that, in the back of my mind I always thought, ‘Marcel and I could probably start a business together if we find the right idea.'”

work weekends

After their master’s degrees, they both took on prestigious jobs: Allam at the Jet Propulsion Lab and Lariviere at the Walt Disney Corporation as an imagineer. But their dream of founding a satellite company together did not fall by the wayside.

Allam said: “We decided to meet up every Sunday for a full working day to figure out what we were going to do. We settled into my little studio apartment; We had a board and just thought of ideas.”

He continued, “As non-commercial engineers, we both initially approached the problem with the idea that if you can build something really cool, people will be interested in it and want to buy it. But actually it’s the opposite. We realized that we needed to identify a much larger market or enter a new market that was untapped.”

The launch of a satellite company

In 2020, they found just such a market: “We stumbled upon the idea of ​​edge computing — putting a processor locally where data is generated and processing the data before you send it over the internet or elsewhere.” It is a common processing method, but not common in space.

With that, the long Sundays finally paid off and in 2020 Allam, Lariviere and co-founder Mark Lorden formed Exo-Space to pioneer edge computing in space.

Exo-Space’s mission is to “use their expertise in AI, computer vision and satellite design to offer an edge software and hardware package that withstands the harsh environment of space and develops edge devices that provide computing services for… Delivering space applications and offering services that never would have been possible.”

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Edge computing in space

Edge computing is a method of processing data closer to the point of origin by increasing the proximity of networks and devices to users. It allows for real time or near real time processing.

Allam said: “Edge computing is very common, for example gaming companies are doing it all the time. They have local servers, which reduces data latency. So if you’re playing online games, a server closer to your physical location means your response time will be faster and you won’t experience glitches or lags. The same applies to the processing of data elsewhere.”

A real-time eye on the sky

Exo-Space’s current focus is computer vision – the ability to use edge computing to quickly identify things on Earth from a satellite.

Traditionally, most imaging satellites use the same process. When they take pictures, they store those raw images on the satellite and then connect them to Earth. This raw data is sent to a data center for processing and then to the end user.

The Exo Space team is able to eliminate two major bottlenecks in this process by implementing edge computing. Because of this, they offer data with the lowest possible latency and aim to deliver data in 60 seconds or less, which equates to approximately a 100x increase in data delivery time.

Allam described the first bottleneck: “When a satellite is collecting images, it cannot downlink those images until the satellite is actually over a ground station — a massive antenna from which the data can be downlinked.” So all that time, which can be up to 30 minutes, that data just sits on the satellite, waiting to be sent down.”

Exo-Space’s processor allows images to be processed in the “gap” between when the image is captured and when the satellite is over a ground station.

He went on to describe the second bottleneck: “When you send raw data down, the ‘data footprint’ — the size of the data — is larger because it’s unprocessed. So you need to send that over RF [radio frequency] communicate with a ground station and then send it to a data center via public internet lines. Sending larger data down and to data centers also comes with latency.”

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Exo-Space processes in orbit, meaning they have less data to send down. They also have the benefit of sending direct to the end user as no data center is required.

space entrepreneur

Although Allam and Lariviere took the approach of looking for a new market to break into rather than focusing on “building a really cool thing that people would be interested in,” they ended up with a really cool one Built something that people are extremely interested in!

They said: “For us, starting a company was not a question of if, but of when. There are so many exciting ways in which improvements in space technology can have a positive impact on social change, and bridging this gap is what gets us out of bed in the morning.”

Dave Barnhart, former professor of the two and director of the SERC, said: “The ability of SERC projects to educate, educate and inspire students to get started and start their own businesses is exactly what we hope to enable. It’s great to see Jeremy and Marcel’s experience on a USC satellite project translate directly into a business venture. This is the first, but not the only, incubation that ISI and SERC are conducting to nurture the second generation of space entrepreneurs!”

The Exo Space team is excited to launch its first processor. The device, which they are finalizing testing this month in the ISI clean room, will be attached to a satellite scheduled for launch in October this year.

Published on March 14, 2023

Last updated on March 14, 2023