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Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

Oscar, Emmy Winner Nicolaas Verheem Eyes Final Frontier

Innovation: Satellite focus for Irvine's TRL11

In February 2021, Teradek LLC, the Irvine-based maker of high-performance video products for wireless video transmission and monitoring, saw its team members honored with an engineering-related Academy Award for its technological achievements.

Last October, the company’s Bolt 4K—a “beloved” wireless video transmission system used by TV shows and moviemakers­ got another recognition: a 2021 Engineering Emmy Award from the Television Academy.

With a “Technical Oscar” and an Engineering Emmy to his name, Teradek founder and former CEO Nicolaas Verheem still has stars in his eyes, but it’s a decidedly different type of star.

Earlier this year, Verheem parted ways with the company he founded in 2008 to launch a new space-related venture.

He sees a “big opportunity” in the emerging satellite industry, Verheem told the Business Journal last week.

“I want to get in early on it.”


Video Focus

Verheem’s new company, Irvine-based TRL11 Inc., aims to use video-based technologies to improve the efficiency of wireless video data transmission currently provided by low-orbit satellites.

The company name stands for “technology readiness level,” a scale ranging from 1 to 9 developed by NASA in the 1970s, according to Verheem. The “11” in the company name exceeds that scale, representing how Verheem “want[s] to take it a step further.”

“Given my background in video and specifically wireless, I really think I can make existing satellites work better, achieve more without costing more, enable even more satellites to co-exist in orbit without probems of overcrowding, or just increase the value proposition that they can provide,” Verheem said.

His work with Teradek earned him recognition at the Business Journal’s seventh annual Innovator of the Year Awards a year ago (see related stories, pages 16 and 18).


Inefficiencies Targeted

The number of low-orbit satellites has jumped from almost none to around 4,000 in two years, according to Verheem.

There are plans for 100,000 more in this decade.

“It’s like a whole new market, and it’s having exploding growth,” he said.

However, only a very small amount of the thousands of satellites in Earth’s orbit use video, according to Verheem.

Rather, companies in the business of Earth observation, such as Google Maps, typically download satellite images as stills one at a time, Verheem said.

“That’s very inefficient,” he said.

“If we downloaded the digital imagery [in] video, we can send much more information without using much more bandwidth or with video processing techniques, send the same information but use less bandwidth to do so.”

SAVER Launch

TRL11 calls its new product the Space Aware Video Edge-computer Recorder, or SAVER for short.

The platform’s already getting noticed.

TRL11 recently completed environmental testing for SAVER in preparation for the product’s upcoming space launch on Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 in November.

Rather than an unveiling, Verheem sees the opportunity as a learning experience for SAVER.

“This is not the final product, but rather a start of a very important space-based test platform for us,” he said.


Blockbuster Background

Teradek’s Bolt 4K has been used in numerous blockbusters over the years, including Marvel and Star Wars films, and many TV shows.

The system eliminates the need of bulky cables that have historically plagued motion picture and other broadcasting industry production sets worldwide, and allows remote film monitoring from a variety of locations.

The Bolt 4K wireless radio sends uncompressed video with no delay, which is crucial for the production on movie and TV sets, letting crews monitor the action and control the camera from a distance.

Over 40,000 Bolt transmitters and 60,000 Bolt receivers are now in use in the motion picture and broadcasting industry, Teradek said last year.

“Since the product really impacted the production industry for both [TV and cinema], the Oscars and Emmys independently awarded us,” Verheem said of the 2021 recognitions.

After leaving the company to start TRL11, Marco Vidali, who served as the COO of Creative Solutions, which owns Teradek, assumed Verheem’s former role as CEO.


Local Base

Verheem, a South African born, naturalized U.S. citizen, is now creating another niche solution for an entirely different industry, one which has a growing base in Orange County.

Notable local firms include small satellite maker Terran Orbital and surveillance satellite firm Iceye U.S.; both have bases in Irvine.

Palmer Luckey’s defense technology firm Anduril Industries in Costa Mesa last month said it would be part of a new project that seeks to demonstrate a hybrid architecture where commercial, civil and military satellites can share data in space.

While companies in the space race are more frequently based in Los Angeles, Verheem wants to anchor TRL11 in Irvine because he wants to make sure “Orange County gets a piece of the space economy pie.”

He says he’s looking to set up the company’s office around UCI Research Park.

TRL11 currently counts about 10 employees. While it is self-funded, the company is looking for investors, Verheem said.


Overcoming Obsolescence

Another problem TRL11 is looking to solve with SAVER is the crowding of obsolete space satellites. When satellites run out of fuel, they remain in space for a very long time since there is no way to dispose of them. The result is decades of accumulated space debris that force working satellites to expend more fuel to maneuver around obsolete satellites, which can be costly.

“There’s no services, no repair, no refueling in space,” he said. “Everything just sits there, and everything else now has to maneuver around it. That dodging uses a lot of fuel and time, which actually … adds up to billions of losses.”

TRL11’s video system will help satellite operators gain more space situational awareness, Verheem said.

“It will give satellites and their operators the ability to be more aware of what’s going on around you in space,” he said.

“We can even make the satellites that are there now more efficient and use less propellant to navigate and change their orbits to dodge stuff.”

Verheem hopes the increased efficiency his company is looking to provide will impact the course of current space endeavors.

“The way that we’re acting in space right now doesn’t scale well. Five years to 10 years from now, it will be a massive problem if we don’t change our behavior,” he said. “Everyone is coming to that realization at the same time.”

“It’s a little bit like global warming on Earth. Whether it’s farming or factories, we tend to expand very quickly, and later we realize we should have done it a little bit differently. Space is no different. The expansion just started.”

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