Airbus Space Execs Talk Company’s Future
Airbus is one of the big global business brands well known in aviation, defense and satellite. Astrium Satellites and Astrium Services have been re-branded and now come under the Airbus umbrella of companies. The reorganization could have significant benefits for these two different parts of the space business as the company believes, as a result, it can offer more effective solutions to government, commercial and defense customers.
Evert Dudok, head of communications, intelligence and security (CIS) at Airbus Defense and Space, and Eric Béranger, head of Airbus’s satellite manufacturing division have a unique job history together having effectively swapped jobs two years ago. Béranger was widely credited with building up the Astrium Services business, and Dudok saw a lot of success in building up the company’s satellite manufacturing arm. They have now taken opposite roles.
The EADS group has been rebranded as Airbus Group, effectively uniting all of its activities under a single brand. Under the restructure, the company also renamed two of its three divisions. Going forward, the group is home to: Airbus, focusing on commercial aircraft activities; Airbus Defense and Space, which integrates all the group’s defense and space activities from Cassidian, Astrium and Airbus Military; and Airbus Helicopters, which comprises all commercial and military helicopter activities.
With this array of business units, it’s no secret that Airbus is one of Europe’s corporate giants. In 2012, the group – comprising Airbus, Airbus Defense and Space, and Airbus Helicopters – generated revenues of €56.5 billion ($78.1 billion) and employed a workforce of more than 140,000 people.
Both Béranger and Dudok believe that coming under the Airbus brand will have significant benefits for both of their businesses. Dudok cites the United Kingdom as an example, where the company groups its services together to supply the U.K. Ministry of Defense (MoD) services. “For such national users, we can bring together the ground segments for defense and for police, while also providing them with satellite capacity. One of the major drivers of the space market is to combine commercial with military customers,” says Dudok. “I think it is a natural merger. It has been done by a number of other companies. If you look at the security market, it is somewhere in between. Some of the elements are not necessarily defense related, but there are a lot of market opportunities that overlap between the two fields. So, bringing defense and space together was common sense. Astrium was a good brand, but Airbus is one of the best known brands in the world.”
Béranger talks about “obvious” benefits being derived from research and development (R&D), and that the move under the Airbus brand will increase the leverage of these R&D budgets bringing all of these competencies together. He believes this move will maximize the extent of knowledge and brainpower the company has through Airbus Space and Defense.
“[R&D] is really the target; what it is bringing is an extra capability in terms of innovation and bringing state-of-the-art technology to the market. For our business line, we have had a long tradition in this area. The successes of today were generated several years ago. We will only benefit from this increased R&D.”
For the CIS part of the business, a key target is the growing security and cyber-security market. “There are a lot of opportunities in border security for both terrestrial borders and maritime borders. We have already delivered a system in Romania over the last years, which is now fully operational. We are also implementing new systems in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where we have secured two major contracts,” Dudok says. “In Saudi Arabia, the Northern Border Security system is now operational and we are implementing the border surveillance system for the rest of Saudi’s borders. There are many countries that are looking into these solutions, such as the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Oman and Algeria. There is strong interest across the world for these systems.”
Airbus Group has recently launched AuroraGlobal a new set of High Throughput Satellite (HTS) services that the company has developed in partnership with the likes of Inmarsat and Intelsat, as well as using capacity on the Skynet constellation. “In X-band, we are able to provide 70 Mbps for our defense customers. They have reacted very positively and were quite surprised that they could get this level of speed through our system. Recently, we did a demonstration on a U.K. ship for the U.K. government. For both the government and the commercial markets, high throughput is now one of the key drivers,” Dudok says.
In terms of the big leap forward for these services compared to what had gone on before, Dudok adds, “One of the big differentiators between AuroraGlobal and existing services on the market is that it has a completely open architecture. You can have access to personal mobile solutions like you do at home, but without being obliged to use certain applications provided by an operator. With AuroraGlobal, the speeds have gone up by a factor of four. If you look at the package prices, I think they are now extremely attractive considering what the customer gets for that. If you look at Ku-band services, we can provide this using existing antennas and equipment. We are also providing UHF, L-band, C-band, Ku-band, X-band, Ka-band, etc. We provide all of the services in all frequency bands. We are making sure that we shape the packages optimally for the users we want to serve. We are completely technology agnostic.”
By SATELLITE 2015, Dudok expects the majority of Airbus Defense and Space customers will have swapped their end user equipment to AuroraGlobal. Dudok also expects there will be a strong pick-up in Global Xpress services and the first EPIC services when they come online. “The services will be providing levels of high throughput which will be very interesting to our customers,” he says. “We expect a lot of the maritime customers to have already switched equipment to Ku or Ka. That is one of the major trends we are seeing. We have a really strong backlog of equipment right now, and our biggest challenge is to get them installed onto the ships.”
One market where the company hopes to make more of an impact is aeronautical. “We are in very significant discussions with Airbus to provide services to the aero market. We are not just talking about the passenger market. If you look at what happened to the MH-370 flight, communication is extremely important for aircraft and helicopters for other purposes. For example, availability and operations of the aircraft can be significantly improved if there is a continuous communication channel to support their maintenance. Another question is whether we will have, for example, Global Xpress or Ku-band or both on board planes,” Dudok says. “What Airbus Defense and Space is looking at is being able to provide technology-agnostic solutions that enable planes and helicopters to make sure the end customer can use any technology solution they need or want.”
The government market, however, is a tough right now, not only in the United States, but also all around the world. Dudok admits that this market is “less predictable,” but that the company is more “dependent” on global events, which in theory could create a greater need for communications services.
“If you look at the ground segment, and fields such as professional mobile radio services, there is a need across all the nations. This is quite a stable market,” he says. “In the future, we foresee major growth in the field of security. This is a vast field of interest for us when we look at border security, cyber security, 911 and emergency services.”
The satellite manufacturing market is a dynamic one with Airbus vying for business with the likes of Boeing, Space Systems Loral, Thales Alenia Space and Lockheed Martin, among others. Béranger admits Airbus sees the market as being relatively stable. There were around 20 satellite orders in 2013 and, while he expects it to remain at around 20 to 25 satellites per year in the next two years, he is anticipating an uptake in 2017 due to more replacement satellite orders. “On the Earth Observation side, there are a lot of projects, which are today being studied and prepared by our customers. We had a very good year in 2013 and we expect this to continue in the years to come,” he says.
One of the big topics in the satellite manufacturing space is electrical propulsion. When Boeing and ABS/Satmex announced a deal for four satellites based on all-electrical propulsion at SATELLITE 2012, it was seen as a potential game changer, but since then, the discussion has been a bit quiet as there have not been many other major new deals. But Béranger says there is a “good chance” that Airbus will sell one satellite this year with full electric orbit raising. While it is unlikely that there will be an avalanche of orders, things are potentially on the cusp of change. “What I can tell you is that a substantial proportion of the RFPs that we see, which are looking for [all-electric propulsion], are about 20 percent. On our side, we are actually putting on the table full offers for full orbit raising,” says Béranger. “Today, we have considerable experience when it comes to electric propulsion. We have been doing station keeping for a long time. We have nine satellites in orbit, and two on order that use electric propulsion. The only reason why so far we have not manufactured with full electrical orbital raising is simply because the customers were not interested in this.”
Béranger admits there could be more “hybrid” plays to come to market. “Electric orbit raising does have some advantages. You are saving in terms of mass, but there is a strong saving so you can get a launcher at an interesting price. But, electrical propulsion in itself is a little more expensive. If you get a launcher where the saving is bigger than the increase in cost, it gives you a price advantage, you have to trade against the longer time necessary to reach orbit,” he says.
Béranger is satisfied that the company has performed well in difficult overall market conditions. “This year, we are manufacturing roughly 10 satellites. This is what we need to have a pretty good year,” he says. “Overall, the balance between commercial and government/institutional orders is varying from year to year. We are doing pretty good in a tough market.”
The milsatcom market in Europe should also offer some growth opportunities for the company, as things start to open up. Béranger admits he has seen “very little impact” in terms of the economic situation impacting Airbus’s business here. “In terms of the European milsatcom market, there are a lot of things in preparation. In Europe, you have Syracuse, in the United Kingdom, you have Skynet, you have the Italian and Spanish systems,” he says. “If you look at when the satellites were launched, it is a start to studying how to prepare the next generation of satellites. There have been talks for some time. In the United Kingdom, things will come pretty soon also. So, by the year 2020, there will be some replenishment needed.”