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German startup raises funding for wildfire monitoring satellites

WASHINGTON — A German startup has raised an initial funding round that will enable it to begin launching a constellation of satellites to detect wildfires.

Orora Technologies, or OroraTech, announced June 1 it closed a Series A round worth 5.8 million euros ($7.1 million). Findus Venture and Ananda Impact Ventures led the round, with contributions from Apex Ventures, Bayern Kapital and several angel investors.

Munich-based OroraTech will use the funding to develop and launch the first of its constellation of small satellites equipped with thermal infrared imagers. The company has an agreement with Spire to include its imager on a 6U Spire cubesat launching in December, but is also working to build and operate its own satellites.

That imager is the company’s key technology. “We have one of the smallest uncooled thermal infrared detectors,” Thomas Grübler, co-founder and chief executive of OroraTech, said in an interview. The company was spun out of a cubesat project at the Technical University of Munich.

Grübler said the company plans by 2023 to deploy a “minimum viable constellation” of 14 satellites, likely a hybrid of payloads on Spire cubesats along with its own satellites. Data from those satellites will augment data it is already processing from government satellites, like those from Europe’s Copernicus program, to detect and monitor wildfires.

“We identified that there is a huge lag in public data in the afternoon orbits, but in the afternoon, most fires start,” he said. “With our first 14 satellites, we’re going to double the chance of reaching a fire early enough.” The company expects to add to that constellation over time to fill in gaps, reaching as many as 100 satellites by 2026.

OroraTech is currently working with a mix of public and private customers, ranging from forestry services and insurers to paper companies, which manage millions of acres of forests. “When they get an email from our system, they launch a firefighting plane and extinguish it,” Grübler said. “With these companies we are on the forefront of fire detection and fire extinguishing, as it’s a huge value to them.”

While OroraTech is based in Germany, it’s focused its business on customers in Australia, Canada and the United States, three countries that have seen a rise in the number and severity of wildfires in recent years. The company, which currently has more than 40 employees, is planning to open offices in Australia and the United States to handle sales and, later, support technical development of the system.

The satellites can have applications beyond fire detection. Grübler said the company currently has a project underway to use the thermal infrared imager for urban heat monitoring, and looking at using the payload for monitoring water use in agriculture and to track gas flaring as part of greenhouse gas emission studies.

That versatility attracted the investors who participated in the funding round. “What excites us about OroraTech is the immediate impact on mitigating climate change by protecting our natural carbon sinks and reducing CO2 emissions on a large scale,” said Florian Erber, managing director of Ananda Impact Ventures, in a statement. “The strong mission-driven OroraTech team and their environmental solution is a perfect fit for Ananda.”

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