Apple might have some interesting plans for the skies in the works. According to a new report in Bloomberg, Apple has recruited two Alphabet Inc. executives who oversaw the search giant’s space operations for its new hardware team. The article, which cites unnamed people familiar with the matter, states that John Fenwick, who led Google’s spacecraft operations and Michael Trela, head of its satellite engineering group, are the latest members of a group that will be led by Greg Duffy, co-founder of Dropcam, a startup that produced smart internet-connected security cameras.
When Duffy joined Apple earlier this year, The Information reported that he was joining “a special project at Apple that is operating like a startup within the company.” The purpose of this secretive unit has yet to be confirmed, but it’s reasonable to assume at this point that it will involve satellites and that it may operate with a greater degree of independence from its corporate parent than other Apple teams.
There’s plenty of precedent for such a move. As we’ve reported earlier, tech companies like Google and Facebook in the past have ventured into aerospace with plans of beaming internet connectivity into remote regions by way of drones and satellites, and potentially acquiring millions of new users in the process. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also founded his own space startup Blue Origin. And as Engadget notes, such satellite tech could be used by the iPhone maker to expand and improve its Maps program, and may come in handy if Apple starts seriously investing in autonomous car technology.
Tim Farrar of TMF Associates notes in a blog post that it’s “not hard to discern why Apple might want to consider a satellite constellation, when SpaceX came out with a business plan last year that suggested SpaceX alone could generate $30B in revenue from satellite internet by 2025.” While there are few guarantees that Apple will follow through fully on a satellite project, given its apparent loss of interest in the car development, Farrar says that this upsurge of interest in the satellite industry from major tech players suggests “a dramatic reshaping of industry priorities is underway.”
Lending further credibility to such conjecture is the fact that in 2015, Apple acquired Aether Industries LLC, which develops advanced near-space technology including high bandwidth radio transceivers and high-altitude balloons. Bloomberg also reports that Apple has entered into discussions with Boeing about investing in a project to launch hundreds of satellites into low orbit around Earth to beam broadband access.
Whereas Duffy has a wealth of consumer product and hardware experience, Fenwick and Trela will bring stellar aerospace bonafides to the nascent Apple “startup”. Fenwick is a former US Air Force veteran who co-founded Skybox Imaging back in 2009. Trela came aboard shortly thereafter. The Mountain View-based startup developed micro-satellites about the size of a refrigerator that could take high-resolution photos of Earth. Skybox Imaging was later acquired by Google in 2014 for a cool $500 million.
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