NZ entrepreneur Mark Rocket raising $5m for ambitious solar-powered aircraft

Rocket Lab’s co-founder wants to be the next big thing in the local aerospace industry.

After signing a test-flight memorandum with MBE earlier this month, Kea Aerospace is now gearing up for a Series A funding round.

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Founder Mark Rocket says the two-year-old startup will look to raise up to $5 million, at a minimum $500,000 per investor.

His Christchurch-based company will use the funds to build a full-scale prototype of its planned Kea Atmos solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

So far, the startup has experimented with a smaller version, plus high-altitude balloons.

The full-scale version will have a wingspan of 32m or “the length of three buses” as Rocket likes to put it.

Its solar tiles and 22KWh battery will allow it to fly for more than three months.

It will fly slowly (at up to 110km/h) but very high, with a “ceiling” of 22km. That’s more than twice as high as a commercial airliner, so safely above the weather, but still around 20 times closer to Earth than a satellite – the better to take more high-resolution photos.

Atmos will offer 10cm x 10cm resolution photos, plus multispectural infrared, thermal and SAR imaging (or synthetic aperture radar – a technology for creating 3D maps).

Rocket says Earth-imaging satellites either taker lower-resolution photos or cost the Earth, so to speak, if they do offer higher-resolution images.

He sees a “massive gap in the market” in between.

“Only a small percentage of New Zealand’s land and waterways are aerially surveyed each year.”

The company plans to build and flight-test “multiple prototypes” next year, build the first full-scale Kea Atmos in 2022, and launch the aerial imaging service in NZ in 2023.

Rocket says anchor clients are lining up. He won’t name any, but Environment Canterbury reps were among the crown at the MBIE MoU signing event., which saw Kea become the second company after US-owned Wisk to be approved for unmanned flight tests.

Rocket says agriculture, forestry, maritime surveillance and Antarctic research are all sectors his companies will target.

He says Kea Aerospace’s service will work out much cheaper than the option a client might turn to today: hiring a small plane to, say, take aerial photos of a farm.

What’s to stop a farmer buying an $88 drone from The Warehouse, to do the same?

“Nothing,” says Rocket. “Some farmers are doing that and it’s a great solution.” But he adds that if you’re an organisation like Environment Canterbury, that constantly needs to keep tabs on many properties, Kea will appeal.

The Atmos will also send data back to Kea in realtime, where images will be stitched together then made available to customers through the cloud.

If everything goes well with the local launch, he hopes to quickly expand into Australia and perhaps the Pacific Islands. He sees a total addressable Earth observation market of $11.2 billion, or $5.8 billion excluding the military.

There are competing startups, but Rocket says the Kea is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and that, regardless, others are focused on the communications or military markets.

The latter remains a no-no for Rocket.

He left Rocket Lab around the time the company took on work from a US military agency, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Rocket Lab has since carried out many launches for US Defence and security agencies and the US Air Force.

“It was an amazing time to go through, that initial commercial development. But there was a direction I wasn’t keen to go in,” he says.

Regardless, he wishes Beck well and says: “Seeing how well Rocket Lab has gone in 13 years of commercial operation has been great.” (Beck has previously argued that Rocket Lab will only carry experimental, not operational, defence gear, and that much defence experimentation leads to public-good, dual-use technologies such as the internet and GPS).

Another Virgin Galactic delay

Rocket changed his name by deed poll some 20 years ago (he was born Mark Stevens) to reflect his passion for everything aerospace.

His enthusiasm extended to becoming the first New Zealander to buy a US$200,000 Virgin Galactic ticket back in 2006. (Recently Beck told the Herald he would never go to space, saying: “I’m too aware of the dangers”.)

At the time, Sir Richard Branson’s startup was aiming for its first sub-orbital flight in 2008.

There have been many delays since, and tragedy of a test pilot’s death in a 2014 crash.

Rocket says he was emailed an update from Virgin Galactic just this week. It wasn’t good news. The renewed Covid outbreak in the US had caused it to suspend operations.

There was no word on when operations might resume or when the first commercial flight would be.

“It’s crystal ball stuff,” Rocket told the Herald. But they’re a great team. They’ll get there.”

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