Airbus leveraging partnerships, investments to deliver greater ground truth

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This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

In August, Airbus Intelligence, a key player in the global geospatial industry, announced its Zephyr high-altitude drone set a world record, remaining aloft for nearly 26 days while gathering high-resolution imagery of Arizona. Airbus is investing heavily in Zephyr and Pléiades Neo, a constellation of four high-resolution electro-optical satellites, to enhance its Earth imagery, data and applications portfolio.

François Lombard, who took the helm at Airbus Intelligence in early 2017, is encouraging this type of innovation and partnerships like the ones formed recently with Earth observation constellation operator Planet and Orbital Insight, a geospatial analytics company. Lombard spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner in September at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris.

François Lombard, senior vice president and head of intelligence for Airbus Defense and Space. Credit: Airbus
François Lombard, senior vice president and head of intelligence for Airbus Defense and Space. Credit: Airbus

You’ve announced partnerships recently. Why?

We always formed a lot of partnerships, small and big ones, but it is accelerating. It is getting more important to get the right strategic partners onboard. There is a lot of investment and new players in the industry. That is something we need to embrace. We need to pick the partners that help us to continue to grow and develop our products.

In June, Airbus announced a partnership with Planet. Why did you form that?

I joined Airbus Intelligence last year and I started discussions with a few companies at that time. I picked Planet as a very complementary player because they have different kinds of sensors and a different geographic position. There was a good fit between the teams. We are not overlapping too much. If we package our offers correctly, it can be an improvement for the customers.

In July, an Airbus-led consortium including Planet won a contract to provide high-resolution imagery of Europe for the European Commission and European Space Agency’s Copernicus Program. What will you deliver?

We are working together with Planet and a few other partners to package our different capabilities for the customers. Every two years, we will provide full coverage of Europe at very high resolution. One of the challenges is to get a homogeneous and cloud-free map of Europe in a very short timeframe. For this, you need both very high-quality sensors but also you need a lot of revisits to get this map right. Here, playing with a big constellation, even if the resolution is lower, on top of what we can already offer makes the product fit into the specifications.

How does Planet help you offer this high-resolution dataset?

In some areas, you will accept lower resolution cloud-free imagery rather than having nothing. Sometimes it is only 10 percent of the solution but that makes the difference in being able to deliver a full product with a level of perfection we could not reach if we were alone. On the same side, they alone could not offer a package that would fit the resolution. The fit between the two companies is good. I hope we will replicate this kind of offer very soon.

Do you have other new partners?

We signed a structural agreement partnership with Orbital Insight. The idea is to complement our offers with their analytics. Orbital Insight benefits because they get more access to our data. We build bridges between our database and their tools. We will integrate their analytics for our customers on our OneAtlas platform.

This is a big strategic partnership the consequence of hard work over the last 12 months to get the partner right and to get the partnership right in the details.

Airbus has such breadth. Why does it need partners?

I am trying fight this perception that we could do everything. Yes, we could if we wanted. But can you be world-class on every small step of the value chain? I have some doubt, or at least it will take more time. Through this kind of partnership, you can go faster and you can disrupt some parts of the market. We could do it alone but it goes faster and better if we do it this way.

In this specific segment, the geospatial segment, Airbus has been investing a lot of money and effort for two years. It will continue over the next years. We are developing a large set of new systems.

What new systems?

Last year, we announced Pléiades Neo, four very high-resolution satellites we will start to launch in 2020. That was a big step for us to make this investment. We are making everything new, all the technologies from the analytics to the cloud-based solutions.

When you say fully private, do you mean Airbus is the only investor?

This is just Airbus money. It’s a follow-on for us of the two Pléiades satellites we have currently, which are working very nicely. It’s our workhorse to a certain extent. We decided to invest 100 percent Airbus money on the next generation: four satellites, enormous capacity and going down to 30-centimeter resolution. Today Pléiades products are in the 50- to 70-centimeter range. There is only one comparable product on the market at 30 centimeters from our competitor DigitalGlobe.

Is radar an important part of your business?

It has been a very important part especially for the United States. Currently, we have three satellites. We have TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X and a Spanish partner (Hisdesat) launched a third (PAZ) at the beginning of this year. The three satellites will be operated in a constellation.

We flew two of the satellites very close together to generate a Data Elevation Model of the world’s entire landmass, WorldDEM, which is the best quality you can get. We started delivering it in 2016. We have now delivered the full program, which is being used in the U.S. for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. It’s the same in Europe and allied countries. It is the full globe in a 3D model. There is more and more commercial usage of this kind of product. We deliver derivatives to companies that use it as part of their geospatial tools and products. It’s different from the optical market because here we deliver products rather than getting a call and delivering an image.

Airbus is developing four high-resolution imaging satellites that will comprise the Pléiades Neo constellation it intends to start launching in 2020. The satellites will offer 30-centimeter resolution imagery. Only DigitalGlobe currently offers such detailed satellite imagery commercially. Credit: Airbus
Airbus is developing four high-resolution imaging satellites that will comprise the Pléiades Neo constellation it intends to start launching in 2020. The satellites will offer 30-centimeter resolution imagery. Only DigitalGlobe currently offers such detailed satellite imagery commercially. Credit: Airbus

Do you also deliver radar images?

We deliver satellite images from the radar, which can be very interesting in cases when you have clouds. When you cannot get good optical data, the radar is great. And it brings you even more data than an optical image for maritime and defense applications, for example.

The radar business sounds strong.

It is. It is smaller in size than the optical business. It is less mature. We started optical 32 years ago. We flew our first radar satellite in 2007.

With radar, depending on the mode you can get different kinds of information. You can measure movements of the Earth, even a few centimeters or millimeters in some instances. We offer access to a comprehensive satellite constellation, made up of radar and optical sensors, with access to third-party sensors. Our customer gets a one-stop shop. He can, for instance, buy a Direct Receiving Station and get access to all the capabilities he needs.

What is your plan for Zephyr?

We call it a pseudo-satellite. We put a camera on it to make images which are very complementary to what we get from satellites because it is persistent imagery. We can monitor a medium-size city with one Zephyr. This summer in the U.S., we made a world record on flying the drone without landing for almost 26 days. We took thousands of pictures from the drone at more than 20 kilometers altitude, above air traffic. We are hoping this kind of innovation will bring some disruptions in the services we offer.

We also continue to invest in everything on the ground related to the processing, cloud-based solutions and digital platform to make sure all this data is made available in an easy way. Easy to stream, easy to download, easy to have access to the full archives and easy to use for machine learning and analytics.

Is that ease necessary because new geospatial data customers don’t have geospatial expertise?

The number of users is increasing and the more users we get, the less they are interested in the scientific elements of the geospatial industry. Some of them need access to information in our images without touching the image itself. We are already delivering to thousands of customers. Maybe in a few years, it will be hundreds of thousands. This is what we need to prepare for.

The second aspect is machine learning and artificial intelligence. If you want to leverage that, you need to put the data in a specific context with a certain depth of archives. This will encourage small companies developing their own applications. We need to get ready for that.

Zephyr S, Airbus’ high-altitude pseudo-satellite, departed Arizona on its maiden flight July 11. It flew for nearly 26 days without refueling or landing, surpassing the flight endurance record of 14 days set by Zephyr 7 in 2010. Credit: Airbus
Zephyr S, Airbus’ high-altitude pseudo-satellite, departed Arizona on its maiden flight July 11. It flew for nearly 26 days without refueling or landing, surpassing the flight endurance record of 14 days set by Zephyr 7 in 2010. Credit: Airbus

Small companies often need radar data to train their algorithms. You have a lot of data.

Yes. It’s true. We need to find a way to make it more available. It’s easier with optical data because the images are more comparable. For radar, you need to decide which mode you use. If you have different images with different modes, you cannot do any learning on that. And there are fewer radar satellites in the world than there are optical satellites. That’s why you see startups trying to disrupt this market by bringing more revisit, more data to the analytics companies.

What do you think of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) on small satellites?

There are a lot of companies trying to push their small SAR concepts. I see some that are successful. For some others, we are a bit more doubtful whether it works either technically or commercially. We are watching that very carefully. I will not mention names but I think there are a few companies doing a really great job that can work with us as well. We can find this fit together for the benefit of the customers: more revisits adding to our very exquisite higher resolution offers. This will ramp up. The U.S. is one of the most interesting markets for that.

Are you focused on other innovation?

Yes. In the application world, we are continuing to invest where we can make the difference for the customers. The key is to create an ecosystem where you bring partners. It can be very small partners. You give them the right access. They develop the right applications. And you benefit from it. Here, my approach is similar to what Apple did with the App Store.