Disclaimer: The following article is a non-official translation from Challenges (https://www.challenges.fr/) magazine, written by Vincent Lamigeon on the March 19th, 2020 edition n°646.
The expert in satellite imagery analysis thanks to AI works for various military intelligence agencies.
The French Military Intelligence Department (DRM) dreamt of it, Earthcube did it.
Founded in 2016 by Arnaud Guérin, former Orano (previously Areva) manager, and Renaud Allioux, formerly Airbus Defence & Space, the French startup develops strategic sites surveillance software to enable an automated analysis of objects of interest (aircraft, vehicles,...) on satellite or drones images.
“Until now, the majority of the military analysts’ job was to monitor strategic sites (e.g. the Strait of Hormuz, the Chinese sea, Libya…) where nothing happens most of the time, explains Arnaud Guérin, CEO. Our software computes huge amounts of satellite images and raises alerts on dates where some abnormal behaviors are found, such as equipment in motion, or the arrival of transport aircraft.”
French intelligence services spotted their chance. Even if Earthcube does not uncover the name of its customers, the French Military Intelligence Department (DRM) is indeed part of the early adopters of the solution. With the introduction of the new generation of spy satellites such as CSO-1 (800 very high resolution images transmitted per day), those analysts risk drowning under the amount of images to interpret. This is where Earthcube intervenes: thanks to its algorithms developed by Artificial Intelligence specialists, its software S-Cube automatically detects, even on an highly pixelated image, not only a plane, but also its type (transport, fighter,...) and even its exact model (MiG, Sukhoi, Antonov). “We are extending this detection capacity to ships, armored vehicles, and helicopters, Renaud Allioux, CTO, explains. Our detection rate reaches 95% where our competitors’ are around 80%.”
The Pentagone as customer
France’s historical allies are also keen on the solution. A British agency (here again, not mentioned) is also a customer of the French company. Even the US Army converted itself to Earthcube’s solution, despite the existence of three rivals of the French group on its soil (Orbital Insight, Space Know, Descartes Labs).
“Americans do not just play nice: for them to choose a French startup, the solution must be technologically superior.”
mentions François Mattens, head of Generate, the accelerateur of the GICAT (Groupement des Industries françaises de défense et de sécurité terrestres et aéroterrestres), which has been supporting Earthcube since 2018. The startup also mentions having seduced “an international organization”. “A NATO agency” suggest a specialist.
Now with 40 employees, mostly data scientists (data specialists), the startup claims to have a turnover “in millions of euros” and to be profitable since the end of 2019. And it is aiming much higher.
“Our objective is to be the first European Defense Tech unicorn”
assures Arnaud Guérin without a blush. After having raised €4 million since 2016, Earthcube anticipates the next “double-digit” fundraising. Applicants for investment should be numerous. The startup was approached by the investment fund of the Ministry of the Armed Forces, Definvest, but also by the fund of the CIA, In-Q-Tel, which had been one of the first to bet on the American giant of big data Palantir. Earthcube did not comment on this, but argued they wanted to raise both in France and with foreign funds. Objectives: support the international expansion of the group and extand its activities to the civil market (pipeline surveillance, economic intelligence).