After revolutionizing phones, Apple is testing self-driving cars and exploring augmented reality. Recent hires suggest the company is now also looking to the skies.
The iPhone maker has recruited a pair of top Google satellite executives for a new hardware team, according to people familiar with the matter. John Fenwick, who led Google’s spacecraft operations, and Michael Trela, head of satellite engineering, left Alphabet Inc.’s Google for Apple in recent weeks, the people said.
They report to Greg Duffy, co-founder of camera maker Dropcam, who joined Apple earlier this year, the people said. They asked not to be identified talking about Apple’s private plans. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment, as did Google. Fenwick, Trela and Duffy didn’t respond to requests for comment.
With the recruits, Apple is bringing into its ranks two experts in the demanding, expensive field of satellite design and operation. At the moment, these endeavors typically fall into two fields: satellites for collecting images and those for communications.
In a regulatory filing last year, Boeing detailed a plan to provide broadband access through more than 1,000 satellites in low-earth orbit. The aerospace company has talked with Apple about the technology company being an investor-partner in the project, a person familiar with the situation said. It’s unclear if those talks will result in a deal.
At the annual Satellite 2017 conference in Washington DC last month, industry insiders said Boeing’s project was being funded by Apple, Tim Farrar, a satellite and telecom consultant at TMF Associates Inc., wrote in a recent blog. A Boeing spokesman declined to comment.
“It’s not hard to discern why Apple might want to consider a satellite constellation,” Farrar wrote, noting a Wall Street Journal report that Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has forecast $30 billion in revenue from satellite internet by 2025.
A lure for technology companies like Apple, Google and Facebook is to connect billions of people who don’t have internet access yet. The broadband services being explored by Boeing and others would feature low latency and faster speeds than existing cellular systems. “You have a new wave of enthusiastic people who aren’t inhibited by the hard knocks of the past,” said Roger Rusch, who heads satellite consulting firm TelAstra Inc.
Still, TMF’s Farrar said there’s no guarantee Apple will get involved in the Boeing project. The satellite industry is littered with bankruptcies and other failures. Satellite telephone company Iridium filed for bankruptcy protection in 1999, and Teledesic abandoned its “internet from the sky” plan more than a decade ago.
Indeed, Apple may have hired the Google executives for something other than satellite work. It’s already trying to use drones to capture and update map information faster than its existing fleet of camera-and-sensor ladened minivans. And in 2015, it acquired Aether Industries, which develops near-space technology such as high bandwidth radio transceivers and high-altitude balloons.
Duffy, Fenwick and Trela’s new boss, has mostly consumer product experience from Dropcam. It’s internet-connected security camera stored images and video of homes and sent alerts to a smartphone app. Alphabet’s Nest acquired the business in 2014. After a tumultuous stint there, Duffy joined Apple to form a new team reporting Dan Riccio, who oversees hardware teams for the iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple’s augmented reality efforts, the people familiar with the matter said.
Fenwick and Trela joined Alphabet’s Google in 2014 when the search giant acquired Skybox Imaging, their satellite-imaging startup, for $500 million. However, this year Google sold the renamed business, Terra Bella, to startup Planet Labs Inc., a one-time Skybox rival. Google also planned to invest about $1 billion in an internal satellite internet initiative run by industry veteran Greg Wyler, however Wyler left to start satellite communications firm OneWeb Ltd., and Google ended up investing $1 billion in SpaceX.
Fenwick co-founded Skybox Imaging in 2009 while Trela joined soon after as the company’s first outside hire, according to their LinkedIn profiles. Skybox produced satellites about the size of a refrigerator, equipped to take detailed, near-constant images of the earth’s surface. Prior to entering the startup world, Fenwick served in the US Air Force and Trela was a spacecraft engineer at John Hopkins University.