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New Technology Will Offset GEO Sales Declines, Create New Opportunities

The satellite industry may be bracing for an uncertain future, as the sales of GEO satellites plummet, but new advancements in digital technology — coupled with better, more cost-efficient manufacturing processes — will create compelling opportunities in the near future. Such was the verdict generally reached by the six industry leaders who spoke at Wednesday’s opening session — Satellite Manufacturers: Building for an Increasingly Interconnected World— at the SATELLITE 2018 Conference and Exhibition.

While every speaker expressed optimism about seeing more inter-connectivity in the future, many were perplexed by some of the recent turmoil the industry has experienced.

“I hope it is a temporary setback,” quipped Dario Zamarian, group president at Space Systems Loral (SSL). In August, Hughes Network Systems signed a contract with SSL to build its next-generation Jupiter 3 Ultra High Density Satellite (UHDS), to be designated EchoStar 24. The new satellite is targeted at key markets across the Americas and will more than double the Hughes Ka-band capacity in the region, Via Satellite previously reported.

When asked by the moderator what is driving some of the downward market activities, such as a decline in GEO orders, Richard “Rick” Ambrose, executive vice president of space systems at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said it is hard to pinpoint one specific reason.

“In our case, we see what’s going to be a GEO-LEO-MEO [combination] to help companies close their business cases,” said Ambrose. “The ability to produce and do as much automation as possible … we think is the future.”

During the panel, speakers considered recent data from NSR and Eurosat, the latter of which has reported that the number of GEO commercial satellites ordered in 2017 (just seven) was its lowest in 15 years. However, NSR noted in a recent report that in spite of setbacks like these, “the industry will be redefined by the promise of HTS capacity, seeing HTS revenues increase tenfold from 2016-2026, culminating in a $17 billion annual market by 2026.”

“We all wish there were more GEOs, but then there’s things like O3B mPower that we were fortunately to partner with next year,” said Chris Johnson, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International, Space and Missile Systems at the Boeing Company. In September, SES contracted with Boeing to build seven Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites for its O3b mPower network system, Via Satellite previously reported. According to SES, O3b mPower will deliver fully managed services in the dynamic mobility, fixed data and government markets, using multiple terabits of throughput globally.

As the conversation turned toward the topic of digital payloads, speakers mulled the pace at which older satellites being phased out of the marketplace.

“There are still people going with the more traditional payloads … but we’re starting to see the shift,” said Frank Culbertson, Jr., president of the space systems group at Orbital ATK. “There’s not a big divide right now … it’s more of a gradual shift.”

Martin noted that there are “loads of operators” that cannot easily “afford to put a terabit or whatever up in space.”

Because the shift toward digital is so gradual and filled with uncertainty, companies are hesitant over whether to build traditional analog, standard satellites, or try to dip their toes into the new marketplace, Zamarian suggested.

Johnson suggested that the trend toward greater affordability of digital payloads will drive further innovation. “It’s nice to hear all this discussion of digital payloads, and we’re on our seventh or eighth generation of digital payloads,” he said.

Panelists largely saw the challenges of an uncertain future as something that needs to be addressed by the industry as a whole. Successfully transitioning into the digital era is largely contingent upon the extent to which stakeholders can embrace spirit of cooperation, noted Martin Van Schaik, senior vice president at Thales Alenia Space. “Whether we explode or not depends on how our customers will be able to cooperate and finance the new market,” said Van Schaik.

Such cooperation in the post-analog world extends to the technology itself: One of the key aspects to succeeding in the new digital era is the commitment to interoperability, or creating technology that plays well with multiple systems.“ It gets on customers’ nerves with the compatibility of networks is not up to the latest standards,” said Van Schaik.

Interoperability isn’t the only modern-day necessity in space equipment design. As startups develop and roll out their latest solutions, concerns around cybersecurity loom, threatening to eclipse innovations. “You’ve got to be very aware of it,” said Culbertson. “It has to be ‘good hygiene’ and part of your design.”

While adding security features is costly to manufacturers, everyone agreed that it is a necessity. “Cyber threats are here with us and they’re going to stay and you have to build that capability,” said Ambrose.

Nicolas Chamussy, executive vice president of space systems at Airbus Defense and Space, pointed out that in other industries, security features are customary — not some kind of special add-on. “With planes and helicopters … these are native features,” said Chamussy.

But while boosting physical and cybersecurity, adding applications that enable interoperability, and revamping physical designs and software to conform to modern-day specifications are all essential manufacturing to-dos, they are far from cheap and easy to accomplish. The more design considerations a manufacturer must take into account, the greater the challenge of creating a compelling price point for end users.

“I would predict that, over time, software and the ability to have the soft control of the space assets but then connect to the ground systems is where operators are going to want to be,” said Zamarian in response to a comment about operators looking for new ways to add margins to their balance sheets. “The more the industry enables [capital expenditure] reduction by design, the lower the price points will be. If you don’t have the right price point with the end user, the operator’s equation will not [be solved].” VS