Student Project Targets Mass Market for Imagery

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PARIS — Master’s degree candidates at the Technical University of Delft’s SpaceTech session for the academic year ending in June have registered a company that would provide mass-market access to satellite imagery and value-added services from a fleet of 12 optical and five radar Earth observation satellites.

The proposal, which is expected to be registered in the Isle of Man as Mobeo Ltd., was presented at the final SpaceTech symposium July 1 amid presentations by private- and public-sector space officials that showed a continued lack of consensus on whether satellite imagery should be distributed free.

The Delft students, all midcareer professionals from government and industry, are trying to raise an initial $50 million for their Mobeo project, which they say is unique among Earth observation businesses in that its principal customers are the millions of owners of smartphones and mobile tablet computers.

Up to now, Earth observation companies have focused principally on government markets as one of the only reliable customers with the money able to pay for the data. Several vertical markets have also appeared as regular customers for geo-information data, but the private sector remains far behind governments as a consumer of satellite imagery.

The Mobeo business model would change all that. While the Mobeo business would feature its own fleet of satellites, it would not develop the applications for location-based services that a mass-user market would find attractive. Using the Apple iPhone model, Mobeo would pay a commission to apps developers for each use of their software.

The key differentiator for Mobeo is the end-user price — just five U.S. cents per use. Heavy users, including corporate customers, would agree to pay a subscription fee, but Mobeo is clearly targeting a customer base where each customer pays a few dollars a year and which numbers in the millions.

In their presentation, the graduate students said the Mobeo business model depends on being able to refresh all the imagery at least once per week to maintain the customer base, which would include occasional users such as families on vacation wanting to monitor their homes following heavy storms.

To build and launch the 17 satellites — the Mobeo developers designed the business case using a Falcon 9 rocket operated by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., with India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle as a backup — would cost some $1.2 billion, a figure that includes the first seven years of operations, the Mobeo creators estimate.

The founders have postulated a financial package including $500 million in equity — the founders’ initial $50 million plus strategic and private-equity investment — and $700 million in debt through two six-year loans, each carrying a 10 percent annual interest rate, taken out in 2016 and 2017.

The Mobeo presentation ran head-on into an ongoing debate in Europe over whether Earth observation data should be free, as a way to stimulate downstream use of it, or taken over by the private sector to stimulate a commercial business.

Paul Brooks, director of Earth observation and science at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, which is developing a constellation of medium-resolution Earth observation satellites using a Chinese company as the founding customer, said governments should slowly leave the business as providers.

“Security, climate change, international aid and development — these services are and should be provided as commercial services,” Brooks said in a presentation to the symposium. “The institutions need to move out and move on.”

Brooks also said, in an apparently unintentional nod to Mobeo, that the cost of Earth observation data needs to drop sharply as the image-refresh rate increases. “A daily revisit system must be at least an order of magnitude cheaper than a monthly system,” he said.

While European governments, especially in France and Germany, are trying to move Earth observation imagery provision toward the private sector, the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA) has adopted a “free and open” policy for its satellite data.

“Anybody can access data,” said Alexander Soucek, ESA’s coordinator for Earth observation programs. “This is in line with the worldwide trend. No difference is made between public, commercial and scientific use.” Soucek was referring to ESA’s data policy for the coming series of Sentinel optical and radar Earth observation spacecraft.

The European Commission, which will be co-owner of the Sentinel satellites, has not yet come up with a clear policy.

The U.S. government has tried to privatize provision of high-resolution data by helping the private sector finance the satellites and by guaranteeing billions of dollars in image purchases over a decade. But it has also stopped charging for lower-resolution data from the NASA-funded Landsat satellites and seen use of that data skyrocket as a result.

James M. Free, deputy director of the NASA Glenn Research Center, said China and Brazil have seen the same effect with their jointly owned CBERS, or China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite, system. The decision to stop charging for CBERS imagery, Free said, “resulted in increased access, from 1,000 images per year to 10,000 images per month.”