UNIO Enterprise is an exciting new player in the European satellite sector as it looks to make a splash in the mobility sector, particularly in the automotive arena. A joint venture led by Isar Aerospace, Mynaric, Reflex Aerospace, and SES, the company plans to build a Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite network for mobility and has been building out its management team.
Katrin Bacic was named CEO of UNIO in March this year, and Frederic Baker named CTO in June. Bacic has an interesting background having spent a large part of her career at Telefónica. It will be interesting to see how she translates those telecoms experiences in satellite. In this interview, Bacic and Baker outline their plans for a new LEO player in town.
VIA SATELLITE: Katrin, you have a non-satellite background, and more in the telecoms arena. You worked at Telefonica for a number of years. What attracted you to the role of UNIO?
Bacic: What brought me to UNIO was a topic that is close to my heart, and that is: connecting people in the world. This is what I have done in the telecoms sector over the last 20 years. Throughout this period, I have discovered the limitations of our terrestrial networks – in terms of both infrastructure and services – to master the tremendous growth of data, particularly in the view of mega-trends like automation and digitalization. Especially over the last three to four years, my conviction grew that I believe in a smart and seamless combination of terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks – and this is what brought me to the satellite industry.
VIA SATELLITE: How do you believe your experiences at Telefónica will help you in this new position?
Bacic: For me, the space industry – and the satellite communication industry in particular – is really at an inflection point. A new era is starting. When we look at the ‘classic’ space industry, it is very centralized, nationalized, and bureaucratic. It was mostly limited to state programs and had less of a commercial focus. Now, we have a ‘New Space’ sector that is growing, and that has a very clear entrepreneurial and commercially driven focus – this is really what I love about it. I think we can create something truly new in this industry, bring new thoughts, new ideas, and a new approach of how to get things done. For this, I benefit from my experience at Telefónica where I´ve been working 15 years in various management roles for business development and innovation. In the last five years, I was managing director of Wayra, which is the global venture capital and innovation hub of Telefónica. In that role, I was very deep into the startup scene for communications and connectivity services, and I was scouting for a lot of 5G startups. I know the startup scene quite well. But I also know how startups and big corporations have to work together to be successful. I also have expertise and a broad network in the investor segment. All this helps me in many ways in my new role.
VIA SATELLITE: Over the last few years, we have seen a slew of LEO satellite operators emerge. There are many players in the market. Why do you think UNIO can be successful against such intense competition?
Bacic: I am convinced we will be successful because we pursue a very commercial and customer-centric approach. So, what we do from the first moment is that we combine the commercial and technical side. We are already sitting with our potential clients, and asking them directly: What do you need? What kind of services can we provide? So, compared to many other space companies that first come from the technical side, we start with a very clear customer-centric approach. I believe we will be successful as we build our services together with the clients. We are listening to them and adapting the infrastructure based on concrete customer requirements.
VIA SATELLITE: But what differentiates UNIO? I am sure other companies would say they have a customer-centric approach too.
Bacic: I´ll give you an example: We have a very clear focus on the automotive sector. Here, it is very important that we do not only talk about seamless connectivity from satellites, but also about the piece of hardware you need to communicate and to get the connectivity into the cars. Here, we really differentiate from players such as Starlink, that have a clear B2C focus. Other satellite players work with governments. Our clear focus in the first step is the automotive and mobility industry. So, here we develop cutting edge technology, not only on the space side but also on the Earth side, where we build a small antenna for the cars. We look at autonomous driving, and all the new mobility use cases that will come in the next years.
VIA SATELLITE: Mobility is a pretty competitive part of the market. And we have been talking about the automotive market for years, but there has been precious little progress. Why do you believe things are different now?
Bacic: The automotive industry is really changing now. The European and German car manufacturers experience more pressure, when you see what other players are developing around the world. This plays into our strategy that we can really help the industry create the best services for the future. As for our differentiator: we are the only player that, as a joint venture, combines the fundamental capabilities from four strong players – Mynaric (a pioneer in transmitting data per laser), Reflex Aerospace (Europe's first venture capital-funded satellite manufacturer), Isar Aerospace (the manufacturer of Europe's most versatile launch vehicle for small payloads), and SES (the world's leading satellite operator). Having SES as a strong shareholder, also means that we have access to licenses and to a multi-orbit architecture approach, so we can profit from their infrastructure. Combining all these elements is a huge benefit for UNIO.
Baker: On the automotive market: Yes, we have discussed this for years. Previously, we’ve been unable to leverage the advancement of digital technologies to close the respective business cases. The lack of practical, power and frequency-efficient ground user terminals is a prime example of this. We are currently reviewing highly advanced evolutions in user terminal design for a variety of mobile vehicles (cars, trains, planes and even flying taxis). On our current vehicles, the ever-present shark fins for instance, can continue to exist, however we will be seeking to evolve this design with our external partners. We are heavily engaged with the OEMs – primarily the German automotive manufacturers while also extending our relationships to U.S. automotive manufacturers – discussing these and associated topics.
VIA SATELLITE: Could you tell us about the company’s targets in terms of launching its satellites? How big will the constellation be? How much will it cost?
Bacic: Our first satellite will be up in orbit by the end of 2024. This is our mission PoC-1 (Proof-of-Concept). And in 2025, we will have our more comprehensive PoC-2 mission, together with one client for the automotive industry, having two to four satellites in-orbit, to test all the inter-satellite links, services, as well as the user terminals.
Baker: It is a bit premature to dive into costs at this moment in time, as we’re currently in the process of architecting the constellation. We can pull the covers back to give you some ideas: we’re looking at a couple of different inclinations in line with, perhaps, a polar orbit inclination coupled with an equatorial orbit of somewhere between 40 to 60 degrees. We are considering slightly higher LEO altitudes for both CapEx reasons and a preference to distancing the UNIO constellation from the 500 to 550 kilometer altitude which is getting a bit crowded. Moreover, the potential efficiencies with respect to launches, optimized beam footprints and available per-satellite coverage will be among the drivers for our tradespace, and we are rather looking at altitudes from 1,100 to 1,500 kilometers. We benefit from this flexibility because, as customer requirements evolve over the next few years, we will be well positioned to leverage state-of-the-art digital technologies and their evolutions across our future architecture. We may not be launching 300 or 400 satellites right off the bat but may instead plan to phase our blended service provisioning approach as new services and requirements come online aligned with the mobility market’s evolution and growth.
VIA SATELLITE: Are we eventually talking about hundreds or thousands of satellites?
Baker: Once we are fully up, there could be a populated orbital shell of anywhere from 1,100 to 1,200 mesh-networked satellites on orbit. Each will have a lifetime of perhaps four to five years due to the continuing and rapid evolution of software-defined digital technologies across the platforms, payloads and user terminals. By the end of 2026, we could have a few hundred satellites up. So, as soon as the services are validated on our Proof-of-Concept-1 mission in 2025, we will be ramping up multiple and parallel design and production development cycles. We are a New Space company and, as such, will be leveraging these parallel processes to stay substantially ahead of the curve.
VIA SATELLITE: When will UNIO be profitable? What does the road to profitability look like?
Bacic: I won't provide fixed numbers at this stage. But in this market, it's reasonable to say that you need some three to five years to be profitable, at least.
VIA SATELLITE: What does success in your first year as CEO look like?
Bacic: In 12 months from now, we will have scaled our team to have a diverse set of best skilled talents to meet our challenges. And, we will have a final constellation plan. We want to have developments done on the user terminal side, and we want to have everything ready for our first Proof-of-Concept mission in 2024. Also, we’ll be looking for new investors joining UNIO. In particular, we want to win strategic investors, coming from the automotive or telecoms side, but also from the service side. Because, again, the differentiator for UNIO is our clear service-orientation. We really want to offer the best services for our clients.
Baker: From a more technical viewpoint: we have the PoC-1 mission scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2024. To reach that, we must define all the deliverables and milestones to our joint venture partner Reflex Aerospace (the mission’s satellite manufacturer) by January 2024, thus we have a six-month timeframe ahead of us. As for UNIO’s Proof-of-Concept-1 mission, we will have passed, in traditional terms, a PDR and CDR (Preliminary and Critical Design Review) by 12 months from now. Naturally, we will be well-advanced in the development process, not only on the platform and payloads, but also in terms of software and respective digital technologies. Translating all that into the full-up service architecture of UNIO’s constellation, we will have our initial service partners defined with MoUs and letters of intent agreed while, in parallel, having additional milestones and deliverables identified. We will be defining and developing our network virtualization architecture in order to drive and secure ubiquitous, secure and seamless dual-use connectivity across our global marketplace. That whole process – the NTN-TN interface and virtualized network will be a tremendous focus of ours and will be defined and developed early on, in parallel with the user terminal development. These developments are clear drivers for us supporting our success.
VIA SATELLITE: You were at CYSAT recently where there was a lot of talk about security and satellites. Could you tell us about the security features of the UNIO constellation?
Bacic: Of course, security is a key point for us. Besides the automotive and other key B2B verticals – such as maritime, aviation, or agriculture – we also want to provide services for the government. So of course, security is one of the top priorities on our list right now. We need to meet all relevant requirements. This is why we are in touch with potential partners discussing security concepts and the effects for the architecture.
Baker: Of course, we will be aligning with the European Commission’s EuroQCI (European Quantum Communication Infrastructure) program standards, while considering QKD (Quantum Key Distribution) encryption technologies or another form of a Zero Trust architecture topology. These secure communication topologies will be a key focus for UNIO and we'll be ensuring we meet the respective key features of our customer requirements.
VIA SATELLITE: What do you think is the number one challenge you face in order to make UNIO successful?
Bacic: For all satellite constellation players, one of the first challenges to tackle is funding. Our business is cost-intensive. You know how much it costs to get one satellite and launch it to space. And, when you talk about LEO constellations, you talk about hundreds of satellites to be built and launched in a three to four years time frame. So, it’s safe to say that securing the funding to build this infrastructure is definitely key for all players. But here, UNIO is in a very strong position, because we have our four strong shareholders behind us with all their combined capabilities and capacities. We can leverage these assets. Our joint venture partners bring everything we need to build connectivity and infrastructure. And, we are also in talks with partners on the service side. So, I see ourselves in a good position. And the feedback from the market so far has been really positive. They see the team we have built is very diverse, complementary, and competent.
Baker: One technical challenge is also that this all must work in a ubiquitous fashion aligned with the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) protocol and standards releases having been and currently being brought forward. Because we will be seamlessly integrating and leveraging our respective customer use cases across our service provisioning, integrating with and aligning to the standards and protocols enabling users to exercise, enjoy and benefit from the available blended service features is really where I see a tremendous challenge. You need to seamlessly, securely and ubiquitously align the physical, layered and virtualized side of the technologies with the institutions and organizations that are developing those standards. Finding and securing the right team members ready, willing and able to develop our leading or ‘bleeding’ edge dual-use services integrating these standards and customer requirements is among our primary challenges. VS