Philippe Pham, head of Earth observation, navigation and science, Airbus Defence and Space. Credit: Airbus

PARIS — Airbus Defence and Space plans to leverage the French government’s investment of about 90 million euros ($100 million) in the CO3D digital terrain model satellite system to build, with partners, a constellation of two dozen 50-centimeter-resolution satellites in both sun-synchronous and inclined orbit.

The constellation would be financed by Airbus and by prospective customers purchasing individual CO3D satellites or contracting for membership in the Airbus club of time-share-type owners with access to the constellation at predefined data volumes or over specific geographic regions.

Commercial Earth observation is a market that has been just about to take off for well over a decade, but Airbus continues to invest in it.

The CO3D contract with the French space agency, CNES, acting on behalf of the French arms-procurement agency, DGA, represents the third time Airbus has committed substantial resources to Earth observation market.

In 2009, Airbus invested about 300 million euros to build and launch the Spot 6 and Spot 7 medium-resolution, large-swath satellites, with no guarantee of any government backing. Some company officials later questioned whether they would ever do something like that again given the market risks.

In 2016, Airbus announced it would invest, again on its own, an estimated 600 million euros on four 30-centimeter-resolution Pleiades Neo satellites. The first two are scheduled for launch on a European Vega-C rocket in mid-2020, with the two others following in early 2022.

And now comes CO3D, in which Airbus is investing an undisclosed sum that is substantially more than CNES’s 100 million euros.

Philippe Pham, head of Airbus Space Systems’s  Earth observation, navigation and science division, explained how Airbus sees this investment in the context of is competition with Maxar’s DigitalGlobe, the large Planet constellation and other NewSpace arrivals.

The French government wants CO3D for digital elevation models. What is your business case for it?

Our bid following for the CNES CO3D RFP was based on a full business case. The Airbus investment will complement the CNES budget, which came from the Program 191 [dual-use research] budget of the DGA for the initialization of this project.

The market we’re targeting is more than 3D and our business case is for more than four satellites. It will augment our capacity to revisit regions and refresh imagery more quickly, with an extended constellation and other partners, in addition to CNES, to come in the near future.

But for now, it’s just four CO3D satellites?

Correct, but we are working on other projects for export.

Is 3D terrain modeling a large market beyond what CNES wants for the Ministry of Defense and other French government agencies?

It’s not particularly large. The business is to complement this initial demand with an extended constellation with inclined-orbit satellites with high revisit, and different local-time crossing [of the equator]. Plus a lot more data for observations to conduct targeting — a bit like we do today with the Spot 6 and Spot 7 and Pleiades 1A and 1B satellites for maritime surveillance and different vertical markets.

We use the complementarity between Spot 6/7 and Pleiades in terms of swath, revisit, targeting and high- and very-high-resolution imagery.

What is the swath of CO3D?

It’s 28 kilometers. Pleiades 1A is 20 km, Pleiades Neo is a bit less than 20 but not far, and Spot 6/7 is 60 km.

So CO3D is mainly to add capacity for your existing constellation, with more image diversity and faster revisit, and different orbits?

That’s correct — complementarity of resolution, based in image refresh, diversity of local crossing times, and revisit frequency.

Why not use the Pleiades NEO payload for CO3D? Wouldn’t that provide recurring-cost advantages?

No. For CO3D we have optimized the launch cost, the mass and the volume and also the recurring cost with a cost-saving factor so make it very attractive for the export market. So it’s a different size and performance, a complement to Pleiades Neo.

Wouldn’t it have been just as easy to make CO3D a 30-centimeter constellation?

Not necessarily, because of the satellite lifetime and the size and complexity of the instrument — mass, volume, cost — and the different performance characteristics we wanted is different from Pleiades Neo. The CO3D cost, launch mass, volume and affordability is for prospective customers with limited budgets who could not afford Pleiades Neo.

The CO3D satellites. Credit: Airbus

Beyond that, we propose to customers an end-to-end solution with services beyond the satellite infrastructure.

What is the program status of Pleiades Neo?

We are scheduled for a July 2020 launch aboard a Vega-C rocket. The planning we announced in 2016 is being respected. That’s for Pleiades Neo 1 and 2, with the third and fourth to be launched in early 2022.

Does CO3D use a new platform or a modified Pleiades Neo?

It’s a new platform that enables us to launch the four CO3D satellites aboard a Vega-C rocket. The 300-kg launch mass is a new design for mini-constellations and export markets for 50-cm resolution. We made a special effort at innovating and industrializing the product with price-affordability as a driver.

It’s a bit like telecommunications satellites — there are large, medium and small versions. That’s also true for Earth observation.

CNES said one of the criteria for CO3D bidders was to demonstrate that these satellites could meet cost and price targets to generate export sales. Did you come up with an estimated annual production volume?

Our business case includes an estimate, a market simulation, of export sales and sales as part of cooperative projects for services with a certain number of nations, over five or six years starting in 2020. This will allow us to amortize the investment and to build, progressively, this mini constellation with partners.

What is the optimal size of the mini-constellation of CO3D-class satellites in both sun-synchronous and inclined orbit?

We estimate it’s around 24-26 satellites. We have a unique offer where propose partnerships and a team-like functioning. We share the in-orbit and ground resources to optimize the service level, the quantity of data delivered, the use of the data — all that at a competitive price.

What is the orbital altitude and service life of the CO3D satellites?

About 500 kilometers and six years’ lifespan, with both SSO and inclined orbits.

Airbus has sold at export more Earth observation satellites than anyone else. But you have your own service provision company in Earth observation. How are you managing the inherent tension between these two roles?

It’s part of an evolving business model that includes sales of raw imagery, the sale of ground-reception and telemetry stations, and also the sale of digital applications for vertical markets. And we offer a partnership model and “club membership,” with a shared interest, to divide the cost and use of the resources as a function of uses cases — zones of interest in specific geographic areas, for example. This allows the partners to operate as part of a team.

You’re investing your own money in Pleiades Neo and now you’re financing more than half of CO3D despite what looks like heightened competition beyond DigitalGlobe. There are lots of new companies coming into the market.

Yes and no. There is a lot of buzz, and lots of announcements. But so far not so many real actors are in the business. We are now number two in the market, behind DigitalGlobe. UrtheCast is still trying to put together its infrastructure. Then there’s Planet, Blackbridge and SkyBox [both now owned by Planet], and Deimos. But in terms of a real presence and revenue profile and government customers — they are not yet there.

We have positioned ourselves at the higher end of the market. There aren’t a lot of players that can produce a 30-cm product, and 50-cm like CO3D is not easy either. So we are trying to find the “blue ocean,” with a premium service of high-quality imagery and demanding service-level agreements.

We believe in this market. If we’re right that there are only two or three companies that can offer this service level, then we should be able to succeed. It’s not easy, but we think we can get there.