Kayrros: from tracking oil by satellite to tackling the climate emergency

The Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into space in October 1957. The Sputnik spacecraft, the size of a beach ball and weighing 83.6 kg, orbited the Earth once every 98 minutes. Although Sputnik burned up in the atmosphere four months later, it was the starting gun for the space race and thousands of satellites launched since. Today, scientists estimate that as many as 5,000 artificial satellites orbit Earth, transmitting messages and collecting vast amounts of data about Earth, humans and the solar system.

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But until very recently, only a fraction of that information has been used to full effect, claims Antoine Rostand, president of French startup Kayrros. .

“Being able to see what’s happening in real time from anywhere in the world will change our lives,” he says from his headquarters in Paris.

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Rostand, a petroleum engineer-turned-entrepreneur, previously ran the consulting division of Schlumberger, an American oilfield services group. In theory, his team had access to all available information on oil and gas inventories, production levels and emissions. However, the figures were always incomplete and his analysis was speculative.

“I was really surprised by the lack of empirical data to drive the energy transition,” he explains.

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Oil companies have estimated crude oil production by having staff with binoculars count the number of tankers in ports around the world, and little has changed for about half a century. But by the middle of the last decade, the launch of new monitoring satellites, improvements in computing power, and advances in artificial intelligence opened the door to even more sophisticated data-driven analytics.

satellite floating in space

Observation program Copernicus launches first satellite in 2014 © ESA

Systems like the EU’s Earth observation program Copernicus, which launched its first satellite in 2014, take images of the entire planet “every day or several days” and make that data available for free, noted Rostand, who founded Kayrros. do. In 2016, we worked with 4 partners. The five founders saw an opportunity to build a computer program that could track energy use in real time through these images.

Initially, Kayrros had to “go where the money is”, which was the fossil fuel industry at the time. Early iterations of Kayrros technology focused on identifying activity in oil fields, fuel levels in tank pools, and other insights sought by energy and finance executives hungry for commercial edge. But the company’s goal has always been to build tools to help the world better understand and manage the transition to a low-carbon energy system, says Rostand.

Today, the software, which he describes as “Google Maps for Energy and Environment-related Industrial Assets,” has three primary uses. It is still used by oil companies, traders and investors to track the global energy mix, but is also used by an increasingly diverse customer base to monitor emissions and assess physical climate risk.

The team had a major breakthrough in 2020 when they figured out how to accurately detect methane in the atmosphere for the first time using infrared satellite images of Copernicus. Christian Lelong, head of climate solutions at Kayrros, says methane was previously a “black box,” and its detection relied primarily on people, handheld devices and households.

Now, using its computing power to identify pockets of gas and reconstruct weather patterns using infrared images, Kayrros can trace massive methane leaks back to their source.

Kayrros uses software to calculate the height of trees in places like the Amazon rainforest.

Kayrros uses software to calculate the height of trees in places like the Amazon Rainforest © ESA

In the demonstration, Lelong zooms in on spills from industrial facilities in Iraq that flow into Kuwait. In Kayrros software, methane appears as a yellow cloud over a dark blue interactive world map.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s massive oil industry, Saudi Arabia’s skies appear to be relatively methane-free. By contrast, Turkmenistan is “swimming” in gas, while in Russia, two small clouds of methane above Gazprom’s pipelines suggest the company is working on maintenance, Lelong says.

Last month, Kayrros was able to quantify methane released into the Baltic Sea after a series of explosions in the Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany.

This accuracy allows governments to fine or tax methane leaks instead of monitoring the gas for its presence. Rostand sees this as immediately useful for the US government, which will impose fines on companies that produce “excessive” methane emissions from 2024 under the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act.

Rostand says current climate governance is too dependent on trusted companies and governments to report emissions based on their own measurements and assumptions. “We can provide a way to change climate governance from bona fides and greenwashing to real modern capitalism. States can fine or tax polluters, and investors can differentiate between good and bad companies. can.”

In the battle to slow climate change, Kayrros is using its own software to monitor rainforests around the world. Using satellites that bounce signals off the forest canopy, Kayrros can calculate tree heights and identify where illegal logging is occurring and how well reforestation programs are progressing. Such data is especially useful for companies issuing or purchasing carbon credits supported by rainforest conservation initiatives in remote parts of the world where it is difficult to ascertain conservation is occurring without satellites.

Exterior of a shopping center

Emissions data is currently being displayed outside shopping centers such as Westfield. © Brydn Webb

This type of work—data science with a purpose—has captured the hearts of many tech-savvy, climate-conscious graduates. In eight years, the company has grown to approximately 180 employees and has offices in London, New York, Houston, Paris, Bangalore and Singapore.

The average age of our employees is around 26, and at least 30 of our employees hold PhDs in mathematics. “We tick quite a few boxes on this generation,” says Rostand. “This is data science, climate science, and we have a purpose.”

Data-heavy computing operations are also capital intensive. Kayrros has raised $73 million in three funding rounds from investors including former BP CEO John Browne, BNP Paris and the European Investment Bank. While still an investor and member of the Kayrros Advisory Board, Browne was also an advisor to Rostand’s Schlumberger Consulting Unit.

“Kayrros was the first company,” said Browne, and several other companies have tried to follow suit. He highlights Kayrros’ “unique analytical capabilities”, particularly with respect to methane detection. “Not only does it provide important compliance suggestions, it also provides data and insights for business planning.”

Kayrros says this is just a tiny fraction of what can be done with satellite data. “Technology allows me to see a lot more than I thought,” admits Rostand. “The world of opportunity is much bigger than we initially anticipated.”

One of the newer tools aims to predict the future beyond analyzing past events. By monitoring vegetation density, rainfall, proximity to roads and general wind patterns, Kayrros is working with the US insurance industry to develop tools that predict the likelihood of wildfires in specific areas or around specific assets.

Another project under discussion with West and Central African governments is using satellite imagery to calculate how much rice has been planted and predict the quality of the next harvest.

“What’s interesting is that we can see the global situation through very granular, asset-based measures,” says Rostand.

For example, Kayross software shows the industry is emitting three to ten times more methane than currently reported, depending on the country. “This is truly game-changing technology.”

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