Do smallsats even need insurance?

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Only 5 percent of satellites in LEO have insurance. But that's starting to change.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 27, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The extended, and perhaps permanent, downturn in geostationary satellite orders has effects that ripple through the entire space industry. Satellite manufacturers cope with diminished orders and perhaps even consider whether to stay in the market. Launch service providers, with fewer GEO satellites to launch, have to look at other markets, from low Earth orbit constellations to government customers, to make up the difference.

The same is true for the space insurance field. Fewer satellite orders means fewer policies for launch and in-orbit insurance, with a corresponding drop in premiums. According to data provided by XL Catlin, one of a handful of insurers working in the space industry, insurers collected up $1 billion a year in premiums as recently as 2012. By 2017, premiums dropped by about a third.

Insurers who specialize in the space industry, seeing no quick turnaround, are starting to look beyond its traditional customers to new markets. “GEO satellite orders are down quite a bit, so we’re looking to get some additional premium income for the space insurance industry,” said Mike Vinter, executive vice president with Aon Risk Solutions.

Vinter was speaking at a side meeting during the AIAA/Utah State University Conference on Small Satellites in August in Logan, Utah, the annual gathering of the smallsat community that, like that industry itself, has grown significantly in the last several years. That growth, which contrasts with the contraction in the GEO market, offers new opportunities for insurers, but they recognize the same approaches that work for a small number of large satellites won’t work with a large number of small ones.

New demand for smallsat insurance

The conventional wisdom in the space industry is that smallsat developers don’t buy insurance. That’s due in part to the lingering perception that smallsats are built primarily by cash-strapped startups and universities who can’t afford insurance. In addition, constellations of dozens to hundreds of smallsats provide a form of self-insurance, making companies willing to risk losing an individual satellite, or even batch of satellites.

That wisdom is not necessarily true today. As smallsats evolve from educational projects and technology demonstrations to operational spacecraft designed to provide commercial services, and therefore revenues for their owners, companies are increasingly considering some types of insurance to protect themselves from launch failures.

“The market for insuring satellites our size has changed significantly over the last five years,” said Nick Allain, spokesman for Spire, a company that operates dozens of cubesats that collect weather and ship-tracking data. “We’ve gone from not buying insurance because it wasn’t at a price point that made sense to evaluating it on a launch-by-launch basis.”

A variety of factors go into that decision-making process. “We take into account the same factors as most insurance providers: the history of the launch vehicle, success rate and more,” he said. “Beyond that, it’s up to our finance, legal and leadership teams to weigh the launch risks.”

The same is true for Planet, which has about 150 Dove cubesats as well as 13 SkySats, larger satellites that the company obtained when it acquired Terra Bella (formerly Skybox Imaging) from Google last year. “Once we started launching large quantities of Doves to sun-synchronous orbit, those launches were insured against launch and deployment failure,” said Mike Safyan, vice president of launch and global ground station networks at Planet. Those launches, he said, represented a transition from technology demonstration to operational missions.

Planet, which has about 150 Dove cubesats in orbit, has purchased insurance covering the transport of its satellites to the launch site and other pre-launch activities, but has yet to buy insurance covering in-orbit performance of its spacecraft. Credit: Planet
Planet, which has about 150 Dove cubesats in orbit, has purchased insurance covering the transport of its satellites to the launch site and other pre-launch activities, but has yet to buy insurance covering in-orbit performance of its spacecraft. Credit: Planet

Planet has bought other types of insurance in the past, including policies that cover the transport of the satellites to the launch site and other pre-launch activities. The company has also purchased in-orbit liability insurance for its satellites from the beginning. “That’s always been a strong commitment from Planet as being a responsible operator in LEO,” he said.

One type of insurance that Planet has not bought yet is in-orbit coverage of its satellites after launch. It’s not alone: XL Catlin estimates that only 5 percent of satellites in low Earth orbit have insurance, compared to nearly half of all GEO satellites.

“The constellation has enough redundancy built into it in terms of the numbers of satellites that we don’t need to insure the performance of any specific satellite,” Safyan said of its Dove satellites.

Planet has considered insurance for its SkySat fleet given the smaller number of them and the higher individual value of each satellite. “To date,” he said, “we haven’t felt the need for in-orbit performance insurance, and part of that is because for these smallsat constellations, redundancy is already built in with the numbers of satellites in orbit.”

Online space insurance

Safyan said Planet has worked for years with Willis, its insurance broker, for placing the various kinds of insurance it has purchased. Buying insurance for a typical GEO satellite can involve extensive briefings with brokers and underwriters, as well as satellite manufacturers and launch service providers. Insurers acknowledge, though that this process won’t scale for smallsats.

“We’re looking for the smallsat community to hopefully be another revenue source,” Vinter said. “But to do it, we need to do it very efficiently.”

In Logan, Vinter announced a partnership with Precious Payload, a year-old startup that seeks to offer booking services for smallsat secondary payloads analogous to buying an airline ticket or hotel room on a travel website. Precious Payload, besides selling rideshare accommodations, will now allow developers to also get a launch insurance quote.

As currently designed, a satellite developer offers just a few basic parameters about their satellite through a form on the website: the size and value of the satellite, the launch vehicle that will carry it and its scheduled launch. “We promise to get back to you with a quote within 48 hours,” said Andrey Maksimov, chief executive of Precious Payload: not exactly the instant quotes that auto insurers offer online, but a far cry from conventional practices in space insurance.

For now, the site only offers launch insurance. “What we’re hoping to eventually offer is post-separation coverage” for some period of time after the satellite’s deployment, Vinter said. Future coverage options could also include transit and prelaunch insurance.

In five of the last 20 years, insurers as a whole incurred more losses on space policies than they netted in premiums, according to XL Catlin.
In five of the last 20 years, insurers as a whole incurred more losses on space policies than they netted in premiums, according to XL Catlin.

“The benefits here are economies of scale,” he said of this approach to buying space insurance. “It’s simple, it’s easy. You can do it in the middle of the night if you want. It just seems to make so much sense.”

Vinter said later that they plan to use preset rates for launch vehicles, but will update those frequently. That’s particularly important as new vehicles, such as small launchers designed specifically for smallsats, enter service. “We want to keep those rates nice and fresh,” he said. “Those new launch vehicles, as they come online, their rates are going to be higher, but they’ll come down with each success fairly rapidly.”

Other smallsat companies are also keeping an eye on small launch vehicles and the effects on the insurance market. “Their rates might be higher until they’ve gotten several successful launches under their belt,” Safyan said of new launchers. “The price tag of a newer launch vehicle might be lower, but when you factor in higher insurance rates, then maybe it’s not as competitive as compared to a more traditional rocket.”

Regardless of how insurance is purchased, and for what kind of launch, both insurers and smallsat developers expect to see more insurance policies sold for such spacecraft. “The size of the market has been increasing due to more satellites in our size range,” said Spire’s Allain, which made buying insurance more affordable for the company.

Safyan said he expects the types of insurance smallsat companies to purchase will expand as they seek to protect their businesses. “Typically, at a minimum you would insure the cost of the launch contract and the replacement cost of the satellite,” he said. “I think as the smallsat industry matures, we’ll see more business continuity or lost contract protection.”

He encouraged insurers to invest time and effort understanding the smallsat industry given its growth prospects. “It’s not the same one big launch policy that you get with a GEO order, but it’s more of a smaller, but more sustained, line of business from a multitude of different smallsat operators.”