Hunter Adams is the founder of Cosmoptera, a startup that produces low-cost, fully autonomous chip satellites called “Monarchs.” Each Monarch measures 5×5 centimeters and is capable of making local measurements of its environment—including humidity, temperature, ambient sunlight, and its own location via GPS—and communicates that information by radio to other Monarchs in a network, as well as to data-aggregating receiver stations. By deploying Monarchs in fields, orchards, and on livestock, this technology provides farmers with real-time data to inform crop and livestock maintenance decisions.
Adams’ initial market for this innovation was not agricultural. The chip satellites are the most advanced version of a chip satellite technology developed at Cornell University. Adams intends to eventually use his Monarchs in space, but he is first conducting proof-of-concept studies here on Earth.
In 2018, Adams joined Cornell Engineering’s Commercialization Fellowship program where he participated in a UNY I-Corps regional short course, followed by his participation in the NSF I-Corps Teams program. Through these experiences, Adams explored how best to apply his technology to this planet. Based on the feedback he received during customer discovery with farmers and wine growers in the region, Adams modified the design of the chip satellite, giving it the capability of monitoring crop and livestock conditions.
“I’ve made many claims regarding the utility of these devices in space for planetary science missions. That is, missions that involve studying the surface of a celestial body in the solar system. I can substantiate those claims by conducting similar studies on the celestial body to which I have easiest access: Earth. And as long as I’m gathering data sets, I’d like for those data sets to be of use to people other than me,” said Adams. “With the help of many folks from Cornell Entrepreneurship, this ultimately led me to agriculture. I can deploy my Monarchs in fields and orchards to gather distributed data sets of the sort that I would like to gather elsewhere in the solar system, and the data that I gather will also be of use to growers that care deeply about environmental conditions for that particular region of the Earth’s surface.”
Monarchs carry many of the sensors that one finds on conventional satellites, including a magnetometer, a gyroscope, GPS, radio, and actuators. Using this suite of sensors, each Monarch can determine its orientation in space like any other satellite. With an embedded set of torque coils that allow each Monarch to create a magnetic field, each can then use the Earth’s magnetic field to alter its orientation in space. Most importantly, Monarchs can be mass-produced by machine at a low cost, approximately $50 per unit.
That’s important, because the utility of these devices in space depends on the ability to produce and launch many hundreds or thousands (or more) of them. An individual Monarch in space is nearly useless, as the data rate from a single Monarch is quite slow, and each is very susceptible to destruction by radiation; however, a collection of hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of Monarchs is useful. The data rate from an entire collection of these chip-satellites is competitive with that of a conventional spacecraft, and of an entirely different variety than has ever before been gathered in space.
Another plus is that Monarchs are disposable. When deployed in low-Earth orbit (i.e. from the International Space Station), the chip satellites burn up in the atmosphere after only a few days, which means that they do not become space debris. Since the devices are intended to function as a dispersed group, an individual satellite is expendable, making chip satellites the first type of space technology that can be lost or damaged without impacting a research mission.