France’s CLS Continues Expansion with Purchase of Spanish Radar Imagery Firm

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PARIS — Environmental data-collection specialist CLS of France has purchased a small Spanish company with expertise in analyzing radar satellite land imagery to complement CLS’s established maritime radar business, CLS announced Sept. 1.

Toulouse-based CLS — Collecte Localisation Satellites — is purchasing Altamira Information of Barcelona in an all-cash transaction for an undisclosed sum. Altamira, which has been growing its business rapidly in the past couple of years, reported 2 million euros ($2.6 million) in revenue in 2009. It is expected to reach 3 million euros in revenue this year and is profitable, CLS Chief Executive Christophe Vassal said.

CLS is financing the acquisition from its cash reserve and from a bank facility taken out for the purpose, he said.

CLS, which is majority-owned by the French space agency, CNES, but is run as an independent company, reported 50 million euros in revenue in 2009 and will approach 60 million euros in 2010. Vassal said the company’s operating margin is about 10 percent. Net profit in 2009 was 6 percent of revenue. Revenue growth has been at double-digit rates in the past four years.

Altamira, which was founded in 1999, has 15 employees. Before the CLS purchase, it was owned by its management team and by bcnHighgrowth, a Spanish venture capital company. CLS counts nearly 400 employees, with 10 offices around the world including CLS America in Largo, Md.

Vassal said Altamira’s revenue is generated mainly from private-sector contracts in the energy and construction industries for land-based applications. While CLS might have elected to enter this business on its own, the company is already in the midst of a substantial research-and-development spending cycle, making organic growth less attractive. In addition, he said, Altamira has technology and customer relations — especially in Spain — that complement CLS just as the Spanish company’s land focus fits with CLS’s use of radar satellites mainly for maritime applications.

The acquisition was CLS’s second in less than three months. In June, the company purchased the geo-location division of GE Equipment Services Europe. The division will be merged into Novacom Services, which is 60 percent owned by CLS and 40 percent by Telespazio of Rome, and operated as part of a joint venture with GE’s TIP Trailer Services.

The new business tracks mobile assets, including truck fleets, using terrestrial and satellite links, and has some 35,000 vehicles under contract, the company said.

The two purchases illustrate CLS’s expansion beyond its well-established business of operating the Argos fleet of environmental buoys that deliver data through several meteorological satellites. The company is also well known for its satellite transmitters placed on animals to deliver migration and population data, also via satellite.

But in the past couple of years, CLS has also established a key role with the European Maritime Safety Agency as prime contractor of that agency’s Long-Range Identification and Tracking, or LRIT, program. International regulations in effect since 2009 require ships weighing more than 300,000 kilograms to be equipped with LRIT transmitters, which give coastal authorities basic information on vessel identity, cargo, direction and speed.

Some 10,000 ships are being tracked as part of the program, delivering more than 40,000 reports daily. Ground-based signals and satellites, including the Iridium constellation of low-orbiting mobile communications spacecraft, are used.

With the European LRIT program now covering more than 30 nations, and with CLS America having won a contract to provide similar tracking for the U.S. Coast Guard, the company is reviewing how best to leverage its satellite heritage to operate a service with a dedicated satellite payload, called Automated Identification System (AIS).

AIS extends LRIT beyond the reach of ground-based signal transmitters through satellite terminals that track ship traffic and deliver the data to coastal authorities. It remains experimental, but Com Dev of Canada and Orbcomm of the United States are building satellites with AIS terminals with a view to a global commercial service.

In Europe, the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA), the European Commission and several individual nations, including Norway, are in various stages of starting satellite-based AIS programs. Norway and ESA have placed AIS payloads in low Earth orbit and are testing them.