65th International Astronautical Congress | IAI Exec Bullish on Market for High-resolution Imaging Satellites

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TORONTO — Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI), which builds high-resolution optical and radar satellites as well as telecommunications spacecraft, is positioning itself as the sole alternative to high-cost U.S. providers for nations that want very-high-resolution imaging satellites.

The company recently was bested by Airbus Defence and Space of Europe in the competition to build a high-resolution optical spacecraft for the Peruvian government, a loss that Yehud, Israel-based IAI attributed to nontechnical, nonfinancial considerations.

In an interview here at the 65th International Astronautical Congress, Opher Doron, general manager of IAI’s Missile Systems and Space group, fully endorsed the arguments of U.S. imagery and services provider DigitalGlobe in saying very-high-resolution imagery is the single most important piece of the overall Earth observation market.

Longmont, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe recently won U.S. government approval to broaden its portfolio to include imagery as sharp as 25 centimeters’ ground-sampling distance. The previous limit was 50 centimeters.

DigitalGlobe Chief Executive Jeffrey R. Tarr has said the sharper resolution will enable his company to attack the global aerial-imagery market, currently composed of hundreds of small operators serving local communities and charging rates higher than satellite operators charge.

Doron agreed, and went even further, saying that, over time, the sharper the imagery, the better. He said an aerial-imagery provider in Israel was facing demand by farmers for 5-centimeter-resolution pictures to enable them to monitor irrigation and other pipelines. “For the market now you need at least 50-centimeter resolution or better,” Doron said. “A 1-meter-resolution satellite does not cut it.”

For the moment, demand from governments in Latin America, Africa and Asia for their own high-resolution imaging satellites is more than enough to occupy IAI and its competitors, including Airbus, Thales Alenia Space, Deimos Imaging and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Europe and Satrec Initiative of South Korea, among others.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. and Lockheed Martin Space Systems of the United States provide imaging satellites to DigitalGlobe and the U.S. government but are much less active in the international market.

All of these companies are watching with glee as nation after nation announces its intention to have its own optical satellite reconnaissance asset — especially if their regional neighbor has one. Chile has an Airbus-built satellite that by some measures is less capable than the Airbus satellite just sold to Peru and is now mulling a new order for the Chilean armed forces. Colombia, also at least in part in reaction to the regional fervor for imagery, had planned its own reconnaissance satellite until budget issues recently postponed the expected procurement competition. Nigeria wants to move from its low-resolution system to higher resolution; Thailand may as well — and the list goes on.

“We have the great good fortune to be in the market at this time,” Doron said, referring not just to IAI but to its competitors as well. “Right now this market for very-high-resolution imagery is mainly for governments, let’s be clear about that. But longer term, industrial sectors will move in this direction.”

For now, the European-built satellites offer no better than 70-centimeter imagery, which Airbus then resamples — overlaying images to produce a sharper resolution — to 50 centimeters.

Many customers are happy with the resampling, but Doron said more and more governments are able to see the difference and want what is sometimes called “native” imagery, meaning direct from the satellite with no resampling.

“Customers know the difference, and the fact is that there are only two places to go now for native 50-centimeter — us and the United States. And we think we’re headed to 25-centimeter imagery,” Doron said.

IAI has sought to further distinguish its offer from the competition by stressing its satellites’ low mass — 300 kilograms or less — and their agility, especially the ability of a satellite to scan while swiveling to reorient its camera to an off-nadir target.

DigitalGlobe’s newest satellite, launched in August, is capable of collecting imagery with 31-centimeter resolution. The company remains undecided about whether its next satellite’s orbit will be placed in a lower orbit to assure 25-centimeter sharpness given that this will sacrifice coverage.

IAI is building a submetric-imaging satellite for the Italian government as part of a bilateral agreement with the Israeli government including Italian jet trainer deliveries to Israel.

The Israeli government has not yet authorized the commercial sale of satellites, or imagery, with 25-centimeter resolution — IAI owns ImageSat International, which commercializes imagery from the IAI-built Eros spacecraft — but Doron said he expected a decision in the coming months that would align Israeli policy with the new U.S. position.