The Disaster Monitoring Constellation of small, low-orbiting satellites was formed in 2004 around small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Guildford, England. The governments of Algeria, Britain, China and Nigeria contributed their satellites to the constellation, and the privately funded Deimos of Spain later agreed to put its SSTL-built satellite into the mix.
Each satellite owner agreed to contribute a portion of its satellite’s capacity to a common pool that was made available for international disaster relief. The remaining capacity was retained by the owner for use by its own government, with a portion remaining available for commercial sale by DMC International Imaging.
The business has evolved into one that regularly books contracts with government agencies that want capacity not from one or another satellite, but from the constellation.
DMC Managing Director Dave Hodgson said the company and its corporate parent, SSTL, are now ready to take the next step toward a fully commercial high-resolution system that would exist alongside the current satellites and be operated as a separate business.
Work already has begun on the DMC3 project, which will feature three satellites, Hodgson said. If completed, it would be a rare example — alongside the Spot 6 and Spot 7 Earth observation satellites being built by SSTL’s owner, Astrium — of a major private-sector capital investment in Earth observation with no government customer standing by.
One key development for DMC’s markets in Europe is likely to be the regulatory regime for Earth observation data decided on by the commission of the 27-nation European Union. It remains unclear whether the commission’s data policy will encourage free access to satellite data, and on what terms — questions of critical importance to a company trying to make a profitable business in the sector.
Hodgson spoke to Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.
What were your revenues in 2010 and how does 2011 look?
We booked about 3.7 million [British] pounds of revenue in 2010, which was 50 percent more than 2009. We have been growing at a rate of about 50 percent per year since 2004. In 2011 we expect revenue will just about quadruple, to 15 million pounds, as we move toward our DMC3 constellation.
What is the next launch planned for the existing DMC constellation?
It is for our partners in the Nigerian government. Nigeriasat-2 has a 2.5- and 5-meter-resolution imager, and Nigeriasat NX has a 20-meter imager.
When and on what vehicle will the launch occur?
It is scheduled for the second quarter of this year, on a [Russian-Ukrainian] Dnepr rocket operated from Russia’s Yasny spaceport.
Is the DMC constellation still working on the principle that each contributing nation makes available, free of charge, about 5 percent of its capacity for humanitarian assistance?
Yes, that is what each contributor has agreed to make available for disaster response. The rest of the satellites’ capacity is more or less reserved for commercial use and for national requirements.
For the commercial sales, does each partner focus on a given geographic region to avoid overlaps?
We coordinate across the whole constellation and each contributor has specific territories to focus on. But the commercial value we provide resides really in the whole constellation, and the daily revisit time.
What is the status of DMC3, which SSTL has been self-funding and has estimated would cost around 100 million pounds?
That is a ballpark estimate for the total cost of the project, which has been pretty much decided. The project is under way. We are ordering three 1-meter-resolution satellites from SSTL.
Will the DMC3 project replace the current constellation or be managed as a separate business with higher-resolution satellites seeking commercial sales?
It will be a separate business from the DMC constellation. Our DMC partners look at this as the next step in the company’s evolution.
Are you looking for outside investors? What is the construction status of DMC3?
We have ordered three satellites to be built by SSTL with a launch scheduled in late 2013. The project is under way. We are in discussions with a customer who would lease a part of the capacity. The constellation is designed to provide 1-meter-resolution imagery for a wide group of commercial users.
The data policy of the European Commission, Europe’s biggest user of Earth imagery data, remains unclear. The European Space Agency has declared that all its Earth observation satellite data will be made available free of charge. How do you react to this as a commercial company planning DMC3?
The policy is in fact confusing, and as a commercial company what we are seeking is clarity. We have provided feedback to the commission and shared some of our concerns.
You are owned by SSTL, which is owned by Astrium, which owns Astrium Geo-Information Services, which commercializes the French Spot optical and German TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X radar satellites. Is there an overlap?
We will certainly benefit from Astrium’s experience and from their sales channels. We have discussed this quite widely in the group and the feeling is that this is an opportunity.
Is radar a future part of the DMC mix?
A number of potential customers have expressed to us their interest in an affordable radar system. There is a broad demand for using radar and optical imagery together as a powerful means of observation.
This would not overlap with the business of TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X?
No, we are not talking about a TerraSAR-X class of satellite. We are talking about something much less expensive, and we see the markets as complementary, not overlapping. On the one hand you have our potential radar for tropical monitoring and a 3-D view of the canopy. TerraSAR-X is much higher resolution and higher performance.
What about new bands for DMC such as multi- and hyper-spectral?
That is something we are actively looking at and we have a number of options. SSTL does have a hyper-spectral capability. What we have in mind is a DMC-class SWIR [short-wave infrared] imager. We follow the general principle of 80/20: You can get 80 percent of a given performance with 20 percent of the investment.
But I think it will be two to three years before you start to see these systems in orbit. What we’re saying now is that we have a capability available at SSTL that can be used.
What is the DMC3 business model?
It resembles in some ways what you see in the telecommunications satellite sector but not often, at least not yet, in Earth observation. The idea is to lease capacity on the constellation. The observation capacity leased by the customer in most cases would be available on the entire constellation.
Do you have customers yet?
We will be announcing customers in the coming months. The goal is to have 100 percent of the capacity leased by the time we launch the three satellites. And we certainly plan to add to the DMC3 constellation.
This would appear to be a business with a high risk level. Do you agree?
It is indeed a risky business, but it is also a commercial business, and in our view it’s about to get a lot bigger. The big institutional demand underpinning it is there, but there are many new applications as well.