SSTL’s Gomes Outlines Two-Year Challenge for Earth Observation Market

[Satellite News 03-05-12] While Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) hopes to make more of an impact in the Earth Observation (EO) market, its new director of Earth observation and science Luis Gomes does not think there will be a large number of contracts in this area during the next two years.

   “There are a few contracts up for grabs. I would not say it is a plentiful market, but there are some opportunities,” Gomes told Satellite News. “Every opportunity comes with challenges, but I still see this as a growing market and there are people interested in EO satellites at the right price. 2012 and 2013 will be transition years with many missions launched into orbit during this timeframe.”
   After 2013, however, Gomes believes that the market for EO satellites and systems could really start to accelerate. “This will stimulate the growth of the market quite substantially. My personal opinion is that we are going to see unparalleled growth in remote sensing from space,” he said. “And not just from space, but also from high-altitude UAVs. There are many applications that will require a lot more information than can be provided right now by the existing systems. At the same time we won’t be selling imagery in bulk the way we have been doing up until now. It will be a lot more about selling user specific services and people will be expecting much more for their money.”
  Gomes was appointed to his new role at SSTL in late 2011. The company derives around 30 percent of its revenues from EO mission and associated services — a percentage that, according to Gomes, is likely to stay stable in the coming year. The company, however, is looking for 5 percent to 10 percent annual revenue growth in this area.
   “Growth in sales of EO systems will come mostly from emerging markets,” said Gomes. “China and Asia in general are the fastest growing markets, with a strong commercial focus. We are also seeing strong growth in South America particularly from national programs. Africa is also a growing market, but is more heterogeneous: some countries (Nigeria, Algeria for instance) already have an impressive world class EO capability, but others are developing their national capability at a slower pace.”
   One of the challenges that the company is facing is its ability to improve the technology available to organizations that want to operate EO systems. Gomes said that the demands of EO customers provide technical challenges as they seek higher temporal resolution imagery.
   “They are not willing to wait a month before they get images of a particular location. Everything nowadays is about rapid response and people are now even thinking of ‘continuous imaging’ systems from space,” he said. “We think those are too expensive at this stage, but nevertheless we are now offering our customers systems with much higher temporal resolution. Another area is the quality of the data. People are using more and more data for very specific applications. The demand for improvements in parameters that affect quality of the data delivered is increasing. I think over the next few years, these will be the main challenges for the industry.”
   The company wants to give customers faster image collecting systems at lower cost, so it is looking to increase the data gathering and handling capabilities of its EO systems. Service offerings also will be a key part of SSTL’s offer to potential customers going forward, according to Gomes. “People are looking more and more for services, and not just the imagery. Raw imagery is of little interest nowadays. So we are working on improving things like on-board data storage, on-board data processing and the downlink capability, and then having the matching ground segment system that allows you to have the information available to the users rapidly.”
   Gomes highlighted some of the technology trends that could emerge in the vibrant EO market during the next few years, including: less focus on improving resolution and more focus on increasing the area captured per satellite; more spectral resolution and introduction of new bands on commercial missions; the arrival of low-cost SAR missions; and a new range of applications of satellite imagery hitting the market.
   “Additionally, we will continue to see a reduction in the size and cost of satellites with, for instance, 300kg class satellites delivering commercial 1m and sub 1m imagery by the end of 2013/early 2014,” said Gomes. “This is the market that SSTL is perfectly placed to service.”

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