OneWeb Satellites inaugurates Florida factory
MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. — OneWeb Satellites, the joint venture of Airbus and OneWeb, formally opened its Florida factory that will soon be producing satellites for OneWeb’s constellation at the rate of two per day.
The July 22 ribbon-cutting ceremony at the 9,750-square-meter factory, located just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center here, marked the formal opening of the facility, although its twin production lines are still being commissioned and have yet to start full-scale satellite production. The event attracted dignitaries that included Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who was governor when Florida landed the deal three years ago to bring the factory to the state.
Ultimately, the factory will be able to build two satellites a day for OneWeb, allowing the company to maintain a high launch cadence as it seeks to deploy its initial 648-satellite constellation over the next two years.
“We are going to pioneer serial satellite production,” said Tony Gingiss, chief executive of OneWeb Satellites, at the ceremony. “It is something that has not been done in the industry.”
The company designed the factory from the ground up to support mass production of satellites. The twin production lines are laid out to optimize assembly, and make use of robots known as automated guided vehicles to move components efficiently from one station to the next.
Company officials said on a tour of the factory that they are still testing various aspects of the assembly process, and didn’t give an estimate on when full-scale production will begin. However, the first set of 34 OneWeb satellites, scheduled to launch in December on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, will be built at the factory. Additional launches will follow on a monthly cadence from Baikonur and the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East, each carrying 34 to 36 satellites.
“This is physical, tangible evidence of progress” said Adrian Steckel, chief executive of OneWeb, of the new factory at the ceremony. He said with its planned launch rate OneWeb will be ready to provide broadband access globally in two years, with initial service starting in Alaska and Canada next year.
OneWeb’s first six satellites, built at an Airbus factory in Toulouse, France, launched in February on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana. The company announced last week that those satellites are fully operational and, in tests, demonstrated the ability to provide broadband access at 400 megabits per second and a latency of about 30 milliseconds.
“We’re able now to show and demonstrate working satellites and the ability to connect places around the world,” said Greg Wyler, founder and chairman of OneWeb.
Wyler, in his comments at the ceremony, emphasized the ability of OneWeb to help achieve the goal of connecting every school in the world by 2022, with OneWeb providing connectivity to those schools that can’t be reached by other means. However, he also OneWeb was “getting ready to gear up on the sales side” for commercial customers of the system.
In an interview, Wyler said OneWeb would be targeting rural customers who have few options for broadband today. “We’re going to offer an incredibly valuable and competitive product,” he said. Another initial market will be “land mobility” services for buses, trucks and emergency vehicles.
Another key element of the business plan will be costs. Wyler said OneWeb was still targeting “$1 million and under” for the per-satellite production cost, after the company set an initial cost target of $500,000 per satellite in 2015.
The factory’s first customer will be OneWeb, but Gingiss said OneWeb Satellites is looking for additional users. One example is the contract Airbus won in January from DARPA for its Blackjack program, which seeks to examine how commercial smallsat constellations could be used for military applications.
“We also want to bring this to the larger commercial sector and to military LEO applications,” he added, although he didn’t identify any specific opportunities the company is pursuing.
The factory, which supports 250 jobs, is in Exploration Park, a business park just outside the Kennedy Space Center gates that is also home to a new factory built by Blue Origin for its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle. The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place in a tent across the street from the OneWeb Satellites factory on land that will host a groundbreaking later this year for a Firefly Aerospace launch vehicle factory.
Frank DiBello, chief executive of Space Florida, the state’s space-focused economic development agency, said that only eight acres remains available in Exploration Park, and that he was working to identify other sites in the state’s Space Coast region for other businesses as the area continues to rebound from the aftermath of the retirement of the space shuttle eight years ago.
“Seldom do communities get the opportunity — although they desire it — to transform the industrial base,” said Lynda Weatherman, president and chief executive of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast. “It’s taking place here, and it’s a wonderful thing to see.”