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A start-up fighting pirates with satellites just raised $70 million

  • Luxembourg Future Fund is among investors in a $70 million funding round for Spire Global, a new space start-up.
  • Spire's satellites take a reading of the Earth's weather and maritime activity 100 times a day.
  • Space tech start-ups have raised $2 billion in funding from private investors in 2017.

Spire Global has been launching small satellites to keep watch over the Earth's oceans and remote lands since 2014. The start-up now has $70 million in fresh capital to fuel its expansion, which includes opening a new office in Luxembourg, CNBC has learned.

At least 100 times each day, Spire satellites take a reading of what's happening on Earth. The company uses radio frequency technology instead of cameras to hear how many ships are sailing and where they are, and how many planes are flying over remote locations.

It all feeds into an engine for better predicting things like weather patterns.

"My greatest hope is to make weather forecasting as accurate as Swiss train schedules," said Peter Platzer, the company's co-founder and CEO. "We just lived through such a horrible hurricane season. If we knew which way Irma would go, or not, we could have helped tens of thousands of people."

Spire employees testing a small, weather-tracking satellite.
Spire employees testing a small, weather-tracking satellite.

Formerly known as NanoSatisfi, Spire once hit up backers on Kickstarter to help it build cubesats with technology adapted from consumer electronics. By now, it has 48 satellites in orbit, with another 20 preparing to launch soon, Platzer said.

Hedge funds, manufacturers and e-commerce companies all use Spire's data, as do nonprofits, Earth scientists and government offices. Spire's technology is also used by shipping businesses to determine if a vessel may have been taken over by pirates, who typically turn off beacons that Spire can track through a signal.

Other companies combining satellites and data analytics include Digital Globe and Orbital Insight, but they use satellite imagery more than tracking data.

Spire launches small satellites to track all ships across oceans, rivers and lakes.
Spire launches small satellites to track all ships across oceans, rivers and lakes.

Spire claims its systems are more resilient than others and provide greater precision where weather-tracking is concerned. That's in part because other companies use older, commercial satellite technology to get their data or haven't launched their own constellations of small satellites.

Spire's funding round included financing from Luxembourg Future Fund and a number of other investors who declined to be named. The company previously raised about $80 million in venture funding from investors including Lemnos Labs, RRE Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners.

Money is pouring into the market. New space start-ups, including Blue Origin and SpaceX, have raised $2 billion in funding from private investors this year.