Interview with Brian Manning, CEO and Co-Founder of Xona Space
10x higher accuracy and 100x better jam resistance than GPS
This week for SpaceDotBiz I'm interviewing Brian Manning, CEO and Co-Founder of Xona Space Systems. Xona is a space startup building a highly precise and secure Global Navigation Satellite System. Think of their service like GPS but with 10x higher accuracy and 100x better resistance to jamming or spoofing (unlike current GPS service which is very susceptible to both intentional and unintentional interference). To accomplish this, Xona is developing a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit that provide a position, navigation, and timing service. The company is looking to offer the level of navigation that will help enable the next generation of autonomous systems like self-driving cars, drones, and robotics.
Xona also announced just last week that it has raised more than $25M so far toward developing this service. That funding includes a significant investment from Lockheed Martin Ventures, the venture capital arm of defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
Brian Manning, CEO and Co-Founder of Xona Space
I'm particularly excited to share this interview because I've been fortunate to know some of the Xona founding team from when we overlapped in our graduate programs in the Stanford Aeronautics and Astronautics department a number of years ago.
Before we start, it might be helpful to provide definitions for some terms that will be used throughout the interview
GNSS, or Global Navigation Satellite System. This is a type of system that uses satellites to provide location information on the Earth's surface. The most well-known and broadly used GNSS system is the U.S. government's Global Positioning System, or GPS. There are four current GNSS systems, all of which have been developed through national government efforts. These include the U.S.'s GPS, the European Union's Galileo, Russia's GLONASS, and China's BeiDou.
PNT, or Position, Navigation, and Timing is a combination of three distinct capabilities
Positioning, the ability to accurately and precisely determine one's location and orientation
Navigation, the ability to determine current and desired position (relative or absolute)
Timing, the ability to acquire and maintain accurate and precise time from a standard (Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC)
Now lets dive into the interview.
What is the value that Xona's Pulsar system provides and how does it compare to traditional GNSS services like the US's Global Positioning System?
GPS is just a phenomenal system. Not many people realize just much value and how many industries GPS actually supports. Everyone knows it's in your phone, but not many people realize that it's part of every form of modern transportation, most infrastructure, banks, power grids, cell towers, and financial markets. They all rely on GPS.
GPS was never designed to be the only source of navigation and timing throughout the entire world but it's so valuable, available, global, and useful that for many applications it is the only thing that can meet everyone's needs. As a result, many different industries have adopted it. Looking toward the future, there are a number of new technologies that are leveraging precision navigation, like autonomous vehicles, robotics, drones, augmented reality, and many others. When GPS was conceived, these topics were largely still science fiction and the needs of these applications are very different from prior applications. GPS is certainly modernizing but the needs of the commercial market are evolving incredibly rapidly. There has never been a system designed from the ground up to support the accuracy levels, security levels, and integrity levels that those industries need.
So that's really where our system comes in, adding a second differentiated navigation system that is really specific and targeted at providing very high-performance services to newly demanding applications. Things like the automotive world, the drone world, and even into mass mobile.
An illustration of Xona's Pulsar system compared to traditional GNSS. Source: www.xonaspace.com
How did the Xona team come together and what drew you to this problem in particular?
A lot of this technology comes from the prior work of our CTO Dr. Tyler Reid and the rest of our founding team. Our team is actually eight founders, so it's a pretty big founding team. It's all a bunch of Stanford aerospace graduate program folks that met around 10 years ago. After that, some of us split up into industry and others stayed in academia. I for example went into the automotive world for a while and then back to SpaceX. Some of the other folks stuck around after the Masters's program and continued into the PhD program. Tyler did his PhD on how to build a new generation of GPS using New Space systems of large constellations and small satellites.
After that, he went to work at Ford as a research engineer in their autonomous division out here in California. While at Ford, part of his job involved navigation technology scouting. That meant looking out into industry and trying to figure out what solutions and what technologies were available that could support this coming world of modern technology. That's where he started to realize the big gap between where the navigation tech sits today and where it needs to be to support the integrity, safety, and accuracy levels of upcoming modern technologies. So he was the one that started getting these conversations going.
It began with dominos pizza and beer chats and once there were eight of us in the room together, we started asking ourselves "Why has nobody done this before? Well, maybe it's because this team hasn't been together to do it." That was about three years ago and we've been off and running since.
Can you describe some of the constellation design choices for Xona's satellite systems and why they were made?
Well our constellation is a couple of hundred satellites, which looks fairly different than a lot of the multi-thousand communication satellite constellations. Part of the reason for that is that we are a navigation and timing system which is inherently very different than a communication system in many ways. When you are optimizing for the best navigation performance you have different trade-offs. For example, you want multiple satellites in view of your receiver, with signals coming in from different angles to better calculate location performance. However, for a communication system, you really care about maximizing bandwidth for the user, so you typically want only one satellite covering an area or as few as necessary, and to have them all as close together as possible and directly above the receiver’s location on Earth as opposed to spread out with higher geometric diversity.
The superpower of GPS and the reason we have something like six or seven billion GPS devices on the planet is that it's a one-directional broadcast. That really allows you nearly infinite scalability, as opposed to having a limited number of users that each satellite can service, which is the case with bi-directional communications satellites. Having a broadcast-type service drives the system choices around altitude and number of satellites you need to support all of the potential users around the globe.
I'm not familiar with any other LEO-based one-directional broadcast services, a lot of those end up being GEO based, like satellite radio or DISH television for example. Your team seems to really be able to explore this from a fresh perspective because it hasn't been done before.
Yeah, it turns out to be a unique and different use case. Even though the predecessor to GPS (TRANSIT) was in LEO, high-precision LEO navigation has really not been explored in too much detail so we have had a lot of pioneering to do on how we approached this problem.
How do you plan on distributing ground receivers to customers? Will you manufacture and sell the receivers yourselves or do you plan to work with licensed partners who will build and sell receivers, similar to Iridium's approach.
We're still a small team and our core competency is really in how to create and distribute high-performing navigation information. It's not necessarily in how to apply that on the user end case. Part of the reason is if you just look at the breadth of customers for GNSS, it's an incredibly diverse set of applications. Everything from dog collars and key chains, all the way up to a B-2 bomber aircraft. The use cases, threat vectors, and capabilities that are needed across all the different devices between those applications are massively varied. So there's no one size fits all or even ten sizes fit all. There are a lot of sizes with different levels of capability.
Likewise, there are many companies that have created a ton of IP and have a lot of experience in how to make the most out of GNSS signals coming from space and utilizing that information to extract as much performance as you can. For us, everything comes back to our company mission, which is to enable modern technology to operate safely in any environment, anywhere on Earth. If you're building an autonomous car and you want the highest level of safety possible, from a GNSS perspective that means you want the most advanced receiver as well as the most advanced transmitter. So, we are really focusing on the transmitter end and partnering with companies on the receiving end to get the best of both worlds.
There's been a lot of discussion regarding how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the value for key satellite-enabled services such as Earth Observation imagery or Starlink's internet service. Are you finding a similar focus around secure and highly precise GNSS services?
The situation in Ukraine has really shown how commercial companies can support national security efforts. One of the satellite services that has been most challenged in the defense and national security world for a long time is GPS. It's something that adversaries have historically known how to jam and disrupt.
We're building around the requirements and the needs of applications like autonomous cars. The needs of those applications are so rigorous in terms of resilience and resistance to interference that as a result, we can meet the needs of a lot of other industries including government and national security applications. In many of these cases, it is expected that GNSS is unavailable; and a global, resilient, and alternative PNT system is needed which simply does not exist today. So ultimately operating in space has a lot of applications that can certainly help towards national security and we believe that alternatives and complements to GPS like we are developing is one of those.
Can you share what you learned from your most recent demo deployment of your first satellite on the SpaceX Transport-5 mission? What milestones do you have planned ahead of you?
We have learned a lot on that mission. Unfortunately we can't share too much just yet, other than that you're definitely going to want to stay tuned to see what we have coming up.
What are you most excited about the future of the space industry?
In general, space is as useful as the services it can provide back on the earth. There's certainly space exploration and other space-for-space applications that are somewhat of a different category. However, most of what people are using space for is enhancing the human experience back here on earth.
I think there are a lot of analogies between what space is like today and what the oceans were like hundreds of years ago. If you asked somebody back then, "What are you excited about the oceans?" I think they might have said, "The ability to connect people."
Today the same is valid for space. The superpower of space is scalability and that you can cover the entire globe. You can build something that can provide value and enhancements to literally every person on the planet with only a few hundred pieces of satellite infrastructure. I think we are still seeing more and more new applications emerge. The obvious ones are Earth Observations and LEO broadband internet, but PNT is a huge one also. As these new technologies develop, I think space is a natural place to look to put infrastructure to support future technology, whether that's autonomy, augmented reality, or whatever else is going to come down the line. Because you can utilize that superpower of scalability to reach so many people with a generally limited set of infrastructure, it becomes a very efficient way to build something global.
What are the biggest challenges you see in building a space startup now?
A lot of challenges that we face are due to the uniqueness of what we're building. So much of it is very novel. Part of why I'm so excited to be working on this is that no one has really done what we are doing. If you look at who in the world has built navigation constellations, it's the U.S Government, the Chinese government, the Russian Government, the European Union, and now us. So there are a lot of new and different exciting challenges. It's inspiring to see how adaptable and quick this team can be in coming up with creative ways to overcome new challenges.
At the start, there were a lot of things we hadn't considered that were really challenging about building a navigation constellation. We're taking it in stride and it's why, when we launched on the Transporter-5 mission in May, it established us, as far as we know, as the first ever privately funded company to get a navigation mission into space. That was a huge milestone for us, and the team here continues to get better every day. We expect to have a lot more exciting milestones to come behind it.
Anything else you'd like to touch upon that I haven't asked?
Well, we're hiring!