Commercial geospatial imaging companies: UAVs are sideshows, satellites the main event

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PARIS — Operators of commercial geospatial imagery services on Sept. 15 agreed that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are an increasingly useful complement to their business but are unlikely to pose a direct threat to satellite systems for defense and intelligence customers.

These companies — Airbus Defence and Space, DigitalGlobe, MDA Geospatial Services, e-GEOS and ImageSat — also agreed that while providing value-added services is a growing share of their business, selling data to military customers remains the biggest single breadwinner.

Whether the revenue base among government customers is under threat, from competing constellations of small satellites or a shift in government priorities, was not a subject of consensus.

Massimo Comparini, chief executive of e-GEOS, owned by the Italian Space Agency and Italy’s Telespazio, said his business remains evenly divided today between data revenue and service revenue overall, but is likely to be 70 percent services within a few years.

Telespazio is working with the European Defense Agency and the European Space Agency on trials using UAVs and satellites together for specific data transfer applications.

David Belton, general manager of MDA Geospatial Services, a division of MDA Corp. of Canada, said his company’s revenue from the Radarsat-2 satellite is mainly from data purchases by government customers.

Belton said the challenge for his company, and for all those commercializing satellite imagery, would be to to unlock the commercial market, where services are a better sell.

“Our ability to squeeze more out of our government customers is very challenging,” Belton said. “Equally challenging is to get new customers to adopt our products.”

MDA has operated a commercial UAV service for more than a decade alongside its main satellite offering.

Noam Segal, chief executive of Israel’s ImageSat, said military use of satellite imagery is becoming more difficult to the extent that militaries are interested in counterterrorism operations in addition to their historic use of satellites to collect views of large military installations.

“There was a focus in the last decade of space-based sensors being based on high-density conflict,” Segal said. “It’s quite clear how we can use a satellite sensor to monitor submarine bases and airfields. It’s an easy game for most of the customer base.

“But how to use space-based sensors for counterterrorism— here there is no clear solution. It is harder. it takes more proficiency in working with the system to deal with counter terror.”

Segal assumed his post in late 2015 after a military carrier that he said included 2,500 hours operating UAVs. ImageSat personnel, he said, have a total of around 6,000 hours of hands-on UAV operations experience.

Here is how he described the misunderstanding among many UAV customers of the technology’s cost and limitations.

Segal: Many governments don’t understand the cost and limits of UAVs

“It is clear to most of the customers we are dealing with why they can use UAVs, even if the UAV is definitely not the solution to the problem,” Segal said. “The role for us is doing the patient work with the customer base to provide the end game so that they can become, later, a customer for the [satellite] data.

“Some of the customers in the defense community do not understand the limitations of UAVs, especially in an anti-access, area-denial environment. Most of the these customers operate in these environments, and UAVs are not the most suitable solution for their data-acquisition plans.

“Second, a UAV operator lives in a 25-square-meter environment. Satellites are much more adaptable for wide-area surveillance. If the event is tactical and persistence is needed, then UAV is a good solution. But for most of the areas where we are operating, they are not a good match at all, not in the performance.

“By the way, a UAV’s footprint in terms of human resources and cost is outrageous. People don’t appreciate this. It seems to be very easy; it’s not. The operator base is quite narrow. You see it with the United Nations tenders in Africa: The time from tendering to deployment is six to 10 months, and for a full operational capability it is sometimes 12 months, whereas a satellite can provide data within days.

“So I think UAVs are complementary, and they are not a real competition to people who understand the limitations.”