Help direct from space

A satellite the size of a shoe box: ConstellR is aiming to enable any farmer to get accurate weather data for their land — and help agriculture withstand climate change better.
© Fraunhofer / Jan von Holleben
A satellite the size of a shoe box: ConstellR is aiming to enable any farmer to get accurate weather data for their land — and help agriculture withstand climate change better.

Satellite missions with an im­portant social impact: This was the theme of a competitive ten­der issued by the European Space Agency in 2017. The tender drew the attention of Marius Bierdel and his colleague Max Gul­de from the Fraunhofer Institute for High- Speed Dynamics, Ernst-Mach-Institut, EMI. They decided to apply for the tender, just for fun. More than 200 teams sent in proposals, but despite the stiff competition, Bierdel and Gulde earned a place “on the winner’s podium,” coming in third. “Right then, it became clear to us for the first time that our solution could actually offer sig­nificant added value for society,” explains engineer Bierdel. The team intends to apply its technology to help improve efficiency in agriculture, and thus to offer a solution to both the impact of climate change and the threat of food shortages.

Added value for society? No doubt!

This is made possible by a monitoring system that is built into small satellites in order to calculate temperature data with high precision. This sounds straightfor­ward at first, but it packs quite a punch: The data is processed by smart farming companies and detailed information about an area of land can then be con­veyed to farmers. Example: “We recom­mend that you water your fields today and harvest tomorrow.” One effect of climate change is that it is getting more difficult for farmers to base farming tasks on their own previous experience; rather, they need to be prepared for drought and ex­treme weather events.

In fact, modern satellites already collect this kind of data. However, some satellites are nearly as large as a bus and a single satellite mission can cost up to 800 million euros. Because of this, there are too few available for the task – a satellite might only traverse a farmer’s field once every few weeks. “Breaking down regular data into a per-field basis is essential for agri­culture,” states Bierdel. This is where the new technology comes in. The two researchers can minimize the scale of the monitoring instruments to such an extent that they can be carried by smaller satel­lites the size of a shoe box. “Costs are reduced by a factor of 400 – the data can be calculated daily with a spatial accuracy of under 100 meters,” says Bierdel.

After their success with the ESA tender, the two researchers focused on the question of how to put their idea into practice. Right on time, Fraunhofer Venture was there to help. They received extensive advice through the business acceleration program Fraunhofer runs for young startup found­ers, including the Fraunhofer Days initia­tive (FDays for short). “FDays kick-started things off for us – the atmosphere there completely captivated and excited us, as did the idea of founding a startup and being able to make our own decisions,” explains Bierdel. FDays also brought some changes in terms of team members: Christian Mittermaier, whom they got to know there, brought business administration experi­ence to supplement the founder team’s predominantly scientific backgrounds.

ConstellR technology on board the ISS

Thanks to the EXIST startup grant of­fered by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and the Fraunhofer AHEAD program, the founder team was able to secure around two mil­lion euros in public funding and further advance Fraunhofer EMI technology. In April 2020, the startup ConstellR was ready for launch. The first major event on the horizon for the team of 19 employ­ees will take place on February 1, 2022, when ConstellR technology will be sent into space — and then operated there for four months together with NASA on the International Space Station (ISS). “In this way we can demonstrate that our systems works in space under real conditions with­out needing to send up a satellite of our own at this stage,” says Bierdel. The com­pany aims to have their own satellites in 2023 – four in total. “With these, we will be able to monitor as much as ten percent of agricultural land surface worldwide,” he adds with pride.

The enthusiasm of the three founders and their clear roadmap has been highly persuasive to investors, too. Rather than thinking about how much money the small company could gather from investors, on the advice of a mentor at Fraunhofer, the team turned the tables and planned in terms of what exactly they wanted to achieve, and by when. Despite hearing during the first round of financing that “a startup can’t really raise more than 500,000 euros,” the team now has a total of one million euros in investor funding in the bank. Bierdel is excited. “Through ConstellR I can play my part in meeting the chal­lenges of food shortages, the growing global population and climate change. This motivates me tremendously.”


“It’s something we’re all proud of”

3x3 questions to Marius Bierdel, ConstellR GmbH

Did you lose sleep at any stage?

We started with four founders, but then one resigned. Most of my sleepless nights were related to the fact that things hadn’t worked out as we had imagined with a team member. Finding a solution for that was really quite challenging.

What advice has helped you?

Our coaches at Fraunhofer Venture gave us an important piece of advice along the way. They said that during the planning phase of the startup, the focus should not be on how much money we can secure from investors. That instead, we should ask ourselves: Where do I want to be a year from now? What do I want to achieve? And only then should we think about how we could make that happen and land the necessary resources.

What are you proud of?

On a personal level, I’m proud that ConstellR already employs 19 people after just one year. I’m also proud of our company culture, which is characterized by feedback, openness and transparency. Being a part of such a team and working on a solution that offers added value is something that all our team members are proud of.