Dragonfly aims to be out of this world

South Africa’s little-heralded but substantial expertise in satellites and their sensors is being resurrected by a new entrant.

Modern: Dragonfly is operating from this refurbished building in Stellenbosch. Picture: Dragonfly Aerospace.

Start-up company, Dragonfly Aerospace, aims to create compact, high-performance satellite buses and imaging sensors for large constellations of satellites that provide persistent views of Earth. Alan Dron reports.

Typically, these are used for agricultural monitoring; they scan for different types of crops and detect whether they are afflicted with problems – for example, a lack of water.

Similarly, the cameras can be used to monitor the progress of major infrastructure projects, such as dams or stadia. There are also obvious security applications, given that some of Dragonfly’s cameras give a resolution as fine as 0.7 metres.

Dragonfly’s smaller cameras tend to be purchased by academic institutions; larger models go to commercial companies and government agencies.

Although Dragonfly was set up in January 2020, CEO Bryan Dean said: “We’re working with a technology and a skills base that has developed over the last 25 years in South Africa.” The industry is centred around one town, Stellenbosch, and virtually all of Dragonfly’s engineers have worked in the industry previously: “We’re in quite a nice situation; we’re very experienced,” said Dean.

Back in the 1990s, he noted, South Africa’s satellite technology was on a par with that of much richer nations: “The first satellite [South Africa] launched, Sunsat, in 1999, was recognised as the best satellite of its class at the time.”

“Sadly, we never had the capital to expand internationally and capitalise on the technology. This has been a real stumbling block for South Africa all along. It’s almost like the industry has never got out of first gear. That’s been a real challenge and frustration,” said Dean.

To prevent this problem recurring, Dragonfly has signed up with a new – as yet unnamed – investor. “We’ve now pulled in venture capital funding from an international base, with the mindset to scale the company to be an international competitor. That’s the differentiator from before.”

Watch this space, as they say.