Visiona Emerges as Brazilian Space Sector’s Industrial Champion
Profile | Eduardo Bonini
Chief Executive, Visiona Space Technology
Brazil has experience in building small research satellites and, with China, 2,000-kilogram-class Earth observation satellites. It also has a space agency and a long-term space development program, called PNAE, with a detailed roadmap for satellite development. What it lacked was an industrial champion.
Now it has one. Visiona Tecnologia Espacial SA, a joint venture with aircraft manufacturer Embraer and Brazil’s telecommunications operator, Telebras, was created in 2013 to manage development of the Geostationary and Defense and Strategic Communications Satellite (SGDC) for Brazilian government civil and military applications.
The satellite is under construction by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, with Brazilian government and industry people training at Thales’ Cannes, France, facility.
Eduardo Bonini, who has long management experience at Embraer but is new to the space industry, was appointed chief executive to manage both SGDC and the creation of a sustainable Brazilian satellite supplier base for the nation’s ambitious space program, both in geostationary and low Earth orbit.
It will be a years-long effort to plant in Brazil a space capacity that, Bonini says, ultimately should resemble in satellites what Embraer is today in aircraft. Bonini spoke to SpaceNews reporter Peter B. de Selding about the company’s goals.
Why did the government create Visiona?
There are long-term space development programs for both civil and military space efforts, but that means a certain amount of money budgeted each year, which the government thought would not be the best way to promote this kind of project.
So the communications minister and the defense minister decided to present to the president the case for a communications satellite, dual-use, in Ka-band for national broadband program, and X-band for military communications.
Your broadband program is designed to provide rural connectivity?
Yes. In the north of the country you don’t have wireline communications; the environment is not conducive to it. The SGDC will bring Internet to more than 2,000 municipalities that don’t have broadband Internet today.
It became clear to the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) and the Minister for Science and Technology that a strong integrator was necessary to manage the supply of this satellite.
Brazil has a nearly 30-year history of building satellites. We built two small data-collection satellites — the SCD series. The China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) series was developed in partnership with China for Earth observation and the satellites were around 2,000 kilograms each. But CBERS was managed by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, INPE, as a science mission, and in AEB’s view a national industrial integrator was preferable.
So there was agreement between the final customer, Telebras, and Embraer to start Visiona, which is 51 percent Embraer and 49 percent Telebras. Telebras is of course most interested in the SGDC satellite, as it will be their property.
Does most of the management come from Embraer?
We’re just a startup today, around 48 people. The management came from Embraer, including financial and procurement people and administration. Embraer hasn’t done satellites, so our technical people came from INPE.
Our SGDC project manager is from INPE, and is in Cannes now. Our director of technology, with long experience, is there too. So these INPE people are now inside Visiona.
In the past two-plus years of existence, INPE has been readying new engineers with the technology absorption program with Thales Alenia Space in Cannes. We have 10 Visiona people in Cannes, and there are others from INPE, from Telebras and from the Ministry of Defense — about 30 in total.
The technology absorption program is to learn about satellite construction, satellite operations, satellite Earth stations and operating the frequency bands as well. So these people are inside the engineering team of Thales Alenia Space.
The goal is autonomy in satellite manufacturing?
The goal is to reinforce the supply chain in Brazil. If we can make that supply chain stronger, everyone benefits. Of course in the future we want to have an industrial arm, and we want to implement new technologies.
And we need to get new contracts for small satellites, to put into practice what we are doing with the SGDC. We can grow as much as needed to enhance Visiona’s core business. We can have a workforce that would supply government satellites.
What is the government’s current demand for small satellites?
AEB is working on getting a budget for small satellites, and they will determine what they want. We are talking with them about what could be a next project in which we can participate. But as a public agency they need to follow regulations for contracting, and we are following those rules to become the real national satellite integrator in Brazil. This is our goal, to win new contracts from the government.
Last year, for example, the Ministry of Defense had a constraint in its budget that reduced planned spending. This year they got some but not enough, only for basic studies. Defense needs several types of satellites — optical and synthetic aperture radar in addition to communications.
If we are able to integrate both programs and to develop a small platform for dual-purpose payloads for civil and military needs, this could help us reduce the budgetary requirement.
Has the government’s willingness to proceed with new projects slowed with the slowing economy?
The problem is the constrained budget. But for SGDC we have a budget that comes both from the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Defense.
If we decide to build a development satellite to prove the capabilities of the supply chain, the Ministry of Science and Technology could have the budget and spend it through AEB.
What we see is that several ministries could allocate a budget for these services, with AEB integrating the demand and the budget, and then coming to industry to find a solution.
How long do you expect the process to take?
Whatever is necessary given customer demand, which is the most important point. The goal is to assure that technology absorption occurs so that ultimately we become independent. This will take time; that’s OK. We need to grow gradually.
What has been missing in the past is continuity in program development. If PNAE happens as foreseen, this will speed up the development of space technology in Brazil.
At this point PNAE is progressing more slowly than planned, correct?
There are delays. Budget indications leave room to doubt about whether the time frame defined by the PNAE — which has a detailed schedule in it — will be accomplished. Clearly the budgets are not enough to accomplish all missions in that time frame.
Is the budget issue affecting SGDC?
Why is that?
Because it started as a single project. There was demand from both the Communications and Defense ministries, and there is strong presidential backing for the project.
Has the drop in value of the Brazilian real against the U.S. dollar made project management more difficult?
The real has gone down and our contract with Thales is in U.S. dollars, but Visiona has put in place strategies to hedge the contract against currency fluctuations. So Visiona is using Embraer’s structure in the Netherlands in order to operate some payments.
If all goes according to plan, how big will Visiona be in a few years? Will you become Embraer’s space division?
We will grow as Visiona. For now, the company is working only on SGDC. When there are new contracts, there will be an ability to grow the company. We plan to perform in the space sector a similar role to that played by Embraer in the aeronautical sector.
How was the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite program managed?
CBERS was a science-oriented program managed by INPE. It was a very important program to develop technologies and consolidate the space industry in Brazil.
The companies that were formed during this program have been our key partners in developing the solutions for the Brazilian space program. They complement Visiona’s capabilities. We are also using our influence to help them tackle other markets.
An important challenge is to be able to do geostationary satellite systems and integration tests locally. INPE is working to expand its installations and Thales was trying to qualify some companies for some components, but it depends on technology transfer and that depends on budget from AEB.
The problem is that there is no geostationary capability in Brazilian companies. In addition to SGDC, there is a contract between Thales Alenia Space and AEB on technology absorption. They are looking for companies capable of receiving technology and in the future becoming suppliers in the global supply chain, for both low Earth orbit and geostationary programs, both inside and outside Brazil.
The idea is to create capabilities to build satellites with more Brazilian content.
Is there any friction with INPE given its CBERS experience?
There have been discussions along these lines because INPE was the integrator for CBERS and now we are the industrial integrator for SGDC. We will need to coordinate all the efforts. The SGDC integration and testing will occur at INPE. We are not going to create something separate.
Does Brazil’s satellite operator, Star One, have a role in SGDC?
They could provide backup in X-band until another source is available. This is a customer decision, but so far as I can tell the government intends to continue to use capacity from Star One.
Is there a backup plan for SGDC?
There are plans for an SGDC 2 in PNAE. But this is something Telebras must define, to see if there is a real demand for it. This is the first one under Brazilian control, so we all will need to learn before making another decision.
As soon as demand is satisfied, new demand will appear of course. This is taking 3.5 years to launch. It will be our customer’s decision. If we are talking about seven gateways covering Brazil and offshore, and 2,000 cities without broadband, I think it’s clear there is room for new demand.
SGDC is geostationary communications. But Visiona can address other missions as well?
Yes, eventually for low orbit and Earth observation. We would love to start building an Earth observation satellite. It is in the military long-term plan. There was no budget in 2014, and in 2015 it is only for studies. I hope that it can start in 2016.
AEB needs to coordinate demand with the ministry to give a single solution, perhaps with an observation satellite system for both defense and civil applications.
Does Embraer look at this as strategic on behalf of the government or as a good business in and of itself?
I’d say both. Embraer is a strategic partner of the Ministry of Defense in Brazil but the company always looks after the interests of its shareholders. This is our business.