Profile: Bill Schuster

Orbimage Chief Operating Officer

An electrical engineer with both a CIA and industry background , Bill Schuster met Orbimage President Matt O’Connell at last year’s Geoi nt conference in New Orleans through a mutual friend. The meeting would prove valuable to them both.

“Matt had described his vision of what he was doing, what he was looking for in a chief operating officer (COO),” Schuster said.

It turns out what he was looking for was Bill Schuster.

Schuster came in as COO of the imaging satellite operator in December 2004. While O’Connell brings what Schuster describes as “more of a Wall Street background” to the company, Schuster brings the technical experience and know-how .

“He and I have a symbiotic relationship,” Schuster said. “He doesn’t know what I know; I don’t know what he knows, but together we can get the job done.”

The job has become even more interesting since Dulles, Va.-based Orbimage announced its plan Sept. 16 to purchase rival Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo. Analysts have predicted the move will give Orbimage up to 60 percent of the commercial satellite imaging market, with the rest going to DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo.

Schuster sat down Oct. 11 with Space News reporter Missy Frederick to discuss the pending acquisition, as well as the general state of the business.

Orbimage has indicated it might be open to purchasing a next-generation version of Space Imaging’s Ikonos satellite after Orbview 5. Is that still a possibility?

Our plan is to go build Orbview 5, and in the meantime study the market demand for satellite access and satellite resources. When Space Imaging was in the process of looking at moving forward with its next-generation satellite, what they were building was Ikonos in name only. It was a completely different bus and completely different optics. The one thing they were clear about was how they could minimize the amount of money customers need to spend to be able to receive stuff.

We have been looking at potential new derivatives of Orbview 5, and it turns out they’re more or less equivalent in performance to what Space Imaging envisioned for the next Ikonos. Now it becomes an issue of the cost, and which ones we think will be attractive to the markets.

Today, some customers are saying they prefer one type of imagery over another, but they’re comparing Ikonos and Orbview 3. In the models I’m talking about, those characteristics [of Orbview 5 and a new Ikonos design] are essentially the same. So they have a preference based on data that isn’t necessarily germane.

But if there is a perception that it is less costly to adapt ground stations to receive and process one form of imagery versus another, then that will be an attraction. We need to look at the economics of the situation, but if people say, “I like this,” I’m not sure why I would fight them.

DigitalGlobe has disclosed plans to operate two next-generation satellites, including one that will be funded commercially. What does this mean to you as a competitor?

We need to be in a position to provide a superior service and price. I think the course we’re on right now is the right course, and we’re not affected by that. They haven’t funded it, and they haven’t built all of it, so it’s not yet a reality.

Our spacecraft has a launch date, and it has a contract. It’s hard to speak to something that is just a plan, but irrespective of that, I think that we are on the right course and the actions we’re taking will be met favorably by the market.

What is the status of the current Ikonos and Orbview 3 spacecraft?

I think there is no doubt the satellites will make their original design lives. Orbview 3 is basically pristine. There have been no major difficulties with it. Ikonos has had a couple of problems, but they’re understood, and the system is operational, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t operate for the next several years. I recently received a report suggesting the previous life expectancy analysis may even have been overly conservative.

Is there a real homeland security market for your products?

In terms of capturing a synoptic view of things, that has an application for some homeland security work. But when you need more surveillance as opposed to reconnaissance, where persistence is important, the answer is that if you want the front door of a building watched, the way to do it is not from a satellite, unless you’re happy to see it once every three days or so. The same thing if you’re talking about watching borders.

Now if you’re concerned with things that are slow to change, such as building a road, I think that can be a use for satellites. I think satellites are a valuable ingredient overall, but it really depends on what element or how you put the whole story together.

Is Space Imaging’s arrangement to market data from India’s IRS satellites still in effect? What about higher-resolution imagery from Cartosat and other satellites in operation or planned by India?

The arrangement is still in effect; it will convey with the purchase. Whether we’re interested in marketing either type of data, we’re still figuring that out.

What regulatory issues concern you as you try to expand the business?

There aren’t any surprises there or barriers we didn’t know about. I would say that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has worked very well with us, and we’ve been appreciative of their responsiveness. There are always two ways to do this sort of thing, and they’ve always done things working with us.

I think we have had a very constructive dialogue with the NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) . If we’re talking to country XYZ about some kind of deal, we have absolutely no problem going to them, and having them help us understand the restrictions involved. Some things you can clearly get out of reading the laws, but these are people who deal with this stuff every day, and it can be very helpful, maybe even for both sides.

There are various laws governing what we can sell overseas, and we have an approved belts-and-suspenders approach to meeting those. We don’t see any particular problem with them; there’s always discussion on what the right resolution restrictions should be, things like that, but those are just ongoing discussions.

We’re compliant and we’re happy to be part of the discussion. I’ve read things about various discussions, such as Google providing pictures of things that could be inappropriate for the enemy and such. We’re very sensitive to that, and in fact, we actually have imposed some rules on ourselves that are stricter than what would be achievable under the law.

How important has your industry become ?

Commercial imaging is counted on no longer solely as an interesting unclassified data source. I think the vision and leadership at NGA has helped move it in that direction. When you look at the quality of the systems, they can address all but a small percentage of the requirements that exist from a quality point of view. Some of the mapping products formerly exclusively made by the government, they’re now employing prodigious quantities of stuff from the commercial guys.

We speak with NGA at various levels on a very frequent basis. At 2 a.m. Saturday [Oct. 8] morning, they advised us of the earthquake in Asia, called to make sure the right people were coming in, to see where our orbits were.

We’re going to be taking pictures today [Oct. 11] . Unfortunately, we’d just passed over the affected area. With Hurricane Katrina, there we got lucky; we were just coming up on the affected area. The pictures we got there really show the power of a satellite in terms of covering a wide area.