Great hardware requires great software. Few parts of that stack illustrate this point more clearly than telemetry, which is essentially about collecting critical data about a vehicle’s performance in real-time.
A weak telemetry system can spell disaster for hardware projects, so many companies rely on expensive, complex solutions, such as combining several open source telemetry tools, built and maintained by a few engineers on staff.
Sift, a new startup founded by two former SpaceX engineers, wants to change that by using an end-to-end telemetry stack that makes sifting through vehicle data simpler, cheaper and more efficient.
The Los Angeles-based startup was founded by Austin Spiegel and Karthik Golapudi in mid-2022. They both realized that SpaceX’s success in hardware development was based on its incredible internal software tools, including telemetry.
SpaceX’s secret sauce, which most people don’t see because it’s not public, is all that software, Spiegel said in a recent interview.
The two founders should know. Spiegel worked at SpaceX for about five years (not counting internships), where he worked on internal tools, including manufacturing systems, test automation systems, and the Starlink telemetry system; Golapudi, who has been with SpaceX for four years, led the flight software operations team for the Dragon spacecraft. (The day Golapudi signed the Dragon mission launch readiness review document, he informed his manager that he was leaving to start Sift.)
Both started thinking about telemetry issues back in 2019 when they witnessed the failure of Boeings Starliner OFT-1 demonstration mission. When I saw that, I assumed it was some kind of hardware failure, Golapudi said. If you read Boeing’s press release on why the OFT-1 mission failed, they said [something like], due to poor software testing and poor software development practices, we had this series of cascading software failures. It was crazy because it was all software, and it was a bit of an epiphany for me.
I realized that most people don’t build hardware the way SpaceX does, he added.
Sift’s solution has resonated with investors, as Sift recently closed $7.5 million in funding to scale its product. Capital comes from leading hardware investor Riot Ventures, enterprise SaaS investor Fika Ventures, and First Resonance, Datum and Duro. The team received its first check from Earthrise Ventures, founded by former SpaceXer Scott Norman.
The Sifts telemetry stack has three pillars: storage, real-time analytics, and visualization. All offer key capabilities to accelerate hardware development, the two founders said. For example, engineers can temporally align sensor data around the same event, such as by comparing sensor data from rocket engine tests, particularly around engine launch.
That’s why we’re building this very powerful infrastructure so you can do these kinds of longitudinal queries over time that say what this engine looks like the last 100 times, or 1,000 times that I’ve run it. How does it compare right now? Golapudi said:
The Sifts stack also encodes all the logic and rules related to the machine’s behavior, so that when the machine is in the field, the system only pulls in the operator when things are going horribly wrong. This, Golapudi said, is a paradigm shift. instead of collecting data and manually monitoring it, Sift integrates that institutional knowledge of car behavior and encodes it natively. The Sifts system also uses object storage, a very inexpensive way to store data in the cloud, making the product more cost-effective for smaller customers.
The company, which now has 10 engineers, is looking to double in size over the next 12 months. The Sifts system is already being used by paying customers spanning the industry, including autonomous electric train company Parallel Systems, another startup founded by a team of former SpaceXers.
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