Array Labs is scanning Earth from space to equip autonomous vehicles with 3D maps

August 7, 2023

It’s an oft-told story: The boom of space startups today can be traced to dramatically lowered cost in launch and satellite manufacturing over the past 10 years. But Array Labs, a two-year-old startup based in Silicon Valley, is also taking advantage of other technological developments in its quest to build a 3D map of Earth.

Those include computation gains, like in advanced graphics processors (GPUs), and radar software development, Array CEO Andrew Peterson explained. Peterson, an aerospace engineer who had previously worked for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Moog’s space and defense division, said the revolution in scientific computing has opened up new possibilities.

“If could take all of this superpower that we were seeing in radar and scientific computing, and you could couple that with really low-cost satellites . . . there’s probably a really, really interesting way to do a new type of Earth observation,” he said. “This was the best idea that I’ve ever had.”

Array plans to map Earth in 3D by flying clusters of radar satellites in low Earth orbit to image the same place at the same time. By capturing imagery of the same place from different perspectives, the company hopes to capture a full, high-resolution 3D digital record of the world. It works similarly to synthetic aperture radar, but the exact technique is known as “multistatic radar,” so named because of how multiple radar satellites work cooperatively across spatial distance.

According to the company, the 3D data will be of such high resolution to be used by driverless vehicle fleets, AR headsets, insurance analytics, and in national security applications.

This is not the first time a group has attempted to use space-based radar to generate global 3D imagery. Back in 2003, the Air Force Research Lab made plans to launch a program called TechSat 21 that would do exactly that, Peterson said. But it was handicapped by limitations in compute. For example, the TechSat 21 team had to solve the bandwidth problem: How do you get enough bandwidth to store all the data the radar is going to generate?

“The system that they had come up with was ten spinning hard drives that are all rated together,” he said. “It weighed maybe 20 pounds, took 150 watts [of power]. Now, something the size of my thumbnail has 100 times more performance and 100 times less cost.”