Italy’s e-Geos is one of two large satellite geo-information service providers — the other is Astrium Geo-Information Services — that are backed by large corporate parents.
Both companies have access to radar satellite systems for commercial use. For e-Geos, it is the four-satellite Cosmo-SkyMed constellation, which the company complements with optical images from U.S., European and Israeli satellites.
It is a growing market that faces challenges from the difficulties some customers have in learning the difference between optical and radar data. Another challenge is budget uncertainty among current and potential customers in Europe and the United States.
Marcello Maranesi, e-Geos’ chief executive, discussed the company’s prospects with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.
Your current equity is 20 percent owned by the Italian space agency, ASI, and 80 percent by Telespazio. Is the government participation stable over time?
I believe it is. ASI has an interest in keeping a close eye on the evolution of the sector and in its strategic evolutions.
ASI plans to launch the Prisma satellite in late 2013 or early 2014, which will be followed by the Shalom hyperspectral mission, with two operational satellites, being developed with Israel.
E-Geos will be involved in the exploitation of these satellites. ASI is also exploring, with the Italian Ministry of Defense, development of a very high resolution optical Earth observation satellite, for which there is a need on the part of Italian defense authorities. This is still in its initial stages and has not been fully decided.
These trends are occurring as the cost for high-performance payloads is coming down. There are many things we can do now with small satellites that we could not do a few years ago. This opens up opportunities.
What was your total revenue for 2011?
Our accounts at Telespazio have not yet been published but I can say we will come in at just under 100 million euros ($130 million), which is a slight increase from 2010, when there was not much growth in the market. In 2009 our revenue, when measuring comparable business lines, was around 86 million euros.
Some companies reported Earth observation satellite image markets shrinking in 2011 as governments slowed spending. Did you see this?
We have certainly not seen a shrinking of the market. In our particular case, we have been able to expand our markets internationally, meaning outside of Europe, with the help of Telespazio’s presence in many countries. Argentina and Brazil are examples of markets in which we have seen good growth in business in the past year or two.
What percentage of your revenue comes from Cosmo-SkyMed raw imagery?
Roughly 15 percent of our business is done through data sales. The bulk of our revenue is from applications and value-added services to customers that include satellite data.
Who are some of your bigger customers for Cosmo-SkyMed services?
We have recently won contracts with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Maritime Safety Agency for maritime surveillance and satellite interferometry — for example, to track the movements of buildings over time caused by natural or man-made factors. In addition to Cosmo-SkyMed, we take advantage of our access to the ESA’s Envisat satellite and the Canadian Radarsat spacecraft. These spacecraft can be used to provide wide-area coverage, while Cosmo-SkyMed then comes in as a complement to focus on smaller areas with higher resolution.
Of our total revenue, more than 50 percent is from outside Italy, and between 25 and 30 percent is outside Europe. Natural resources extraction such as oil and gas companies, and transportation networks are among the big customers, but government users still make up the majority of our customer base. We also have a relationship with Google that is developing nicely, specifically to enable easy access by large numbers of users.
Europe ’s multi-instrument Envisat radar satellite is nearing retirement. Is that a concern?
There is talk of perhaps extending its mission again, but longer term we are hopeful that the Sentinel-1 satellite being built by European governments as part of the GMES — Global Monitoring for Environment and Security — program will be launched in time to provide a smooth transition from Envisat.
On the optical side, what satellites do you make use of to complement Cosmo-SkyMed?
We use images from GeoEye and DigitalGlobe of the United States, and from ImageSat of Israel. We sell products from all three of these providers, but we have a special relationship with GeoEye.
Astrium Geo-Information Services will have access to the French government’s two Pleiades optical high-resolution satellites, the first of which was launched in December. Will you tap Pleiades as a source as well?
We hope to have access to Pleiades, but first we need to see details of the pricing policy.
Astrium Geo-Information Services is a competitor with its Terra-SAR-X and TanDEM-X radar spacecraft. Is that a problem?
No. We sometimes compete, and we sometimes collaborate with Astrium. This is to be expected in a market that is growing in size.
You and Astrium have won contracts with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to provide radar data. How is that progressing?
This is a good example of where we occasionally collaborate with Astrium. We are both working with NGA to find solutions so that the U.S. government can adapt the use of radar data more easily to its needs.
Not just in the United States but in the market generally it is a major goal of ours to demonstrate the utility of radar data, which is more difficult for users to understand than optical data.
How do you solve the problem?
It takes time and effort and it is not an easy task. It is not just a matter of merging the optical and radar data sets. Each has its special value, and the use of radar is really quite different. Optical is more like photography, whereas radar is better used for monitoring and surveillance over time. Timeliness of the data is a more stringent requirement.
Integration of various types of data into information layers made available through Web services is one of our strategies for the future.
What is the status of the Saocom L-band radar Earth observation satellite system being built by Argentina, with which Italy is collaborating?
The launch of the first satellite should be in 2014. These L-band satellites will be used more for thematic mapping and digital elevation models. We at e-Geos will have a role, with ASI, in their marketing. We will have commercial rights outside of South America. The exact contours of the commercial arrangement are still being negotiated between CONAE [the Argentine space agency] and ASI. Telespazio has a local presence in Argentina, and we are cooperating with them to develop the applications market.
Cosmo-SkyMed is a civil-military system. Is data access now proceeding smoothly so that commercial and military users do not interfere with each other?
Yes, and the problems along those lines we really see as less and less a factor as we have learned how to use the constellation. Clearly there has been a learning curve.
What is the split between military and commercial/civil access to the satellites?
Civil users have 75 percent of the capacity and the defense users have 25 percent.
If the GMES program is stopped because of funding issues at the European Commission, what is the effect on e-Geos?
The effect on us is not as serious as it would be for those planning on building the satellites. But it would clearly be a negative signal that would not be understood, either in Europe or in the rest of the world. Frankly speaking, the idea of not continuing a project in which so much has been invested is absurd.
The European Union has yet to decide on a data access policy for the GMES satellites. What is your view?
It’s really a question of short-term or long-term thinking. Making the data freely available to certain sets of users helps stimulate the market in the short term even if it has some less-positive effects on the development of the industry in the long term. But focusing on sales in the short term may hinder the growth of the market over time — and no one favors that.
We favor a more nuanced, balanced approach. Certain European customers in certain regions should be able to get the data free of charge when the source is a European government-funded system. And the European value-added industry should be able to take some advantage from this European investment.