Interview: Eduardo Bonini, CEO, Visiona Tecnologia Espacial
April 7, 2017
RIO DE JANEIRO — The big question hanging over Brazil’s Visiona Tecnologia Espacial has always been: What’s next after the 2-billion-real ($614-million) SGDC civil/military telecommunications project? Four years after the company was created, the answer remains unchanged: No one knows.
The joint venture between aircraft builder Embraer (51%) and national telecommunications network operator Telebras is managing Brazil’s SGDC satellite under a contract with French-Italian satellite builder Thales Alenia Space that includes what may be the most elaborate technology-transfer package ever undertaken in the space industry.
The to develop a sustainable domestic space work force, in keeping with Brazil’s long-standing goal of space autonomy.
The satellite carries a large Ka-band HTS payload to provide internet access throughout Brazil, and an X-band payload for Brazil’s Defense Ministry. The defense forces paid 27.5% of the cost of the program.
SGDC is now at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, next door to Brazil, waiting out a long work-stoppage by a wide swath of the Guiana population.
In an April 5 interview here during the Latin American Aerospace & Defense exhibition (LAAD), Visiona Chief Executive Eduardo Bonini did not seem overly worried about the launch delay. But he was concerned about the lack of focus in Brazil’s space program.
Brazil’s space program is long on ambition; achievement is another matter.
What we need is for someone to take the leadership. Because we really don't have a space program yet. You see here at LAAD several countries, like Russia and India, bringing space technology offers inside their big defense programs.
What can India sell Brazil in space?
Well, 30 years ago they were behind us. Now they are years ahead. They kept regular investment, year after year. Here we have a lack of investment.
Are you involved in developing the SGDC satellite ground network?
The ground involvement we had was the two antennas for the satellite control centers. The main control center in Brasilia and the backup center in Rio. This was part of our contract and we delivered on time and on schedule.
What’s your role once the satellite is in orbit and declared operational?
We have a responsibility for the end-to-end testing, and this will be possible to do early with the X-band, which will be available in operations as soon as the satellite is cleared for use.
For the Ka-band, Telebras is investing in having it available one or two months later. We are not involved in the commercialization of the Ka-band payload.
The first customer for the X-band is the Brazilian Air Force. For a satellite of this size, it will take more than six months or so to complete in orbit operations in the other band before commercialization. It will be a gradual process of increasing use.
But just after launch — one or two months later — we’ll be able to have the end-to-end test in the X-band. We are supporting Telebras as part of our contract, in terms of technical issues and the operations of the satellite. But in terms of their business plans and how the will manage it, we are not involved.
Given where Telebras is with the ground network — lots of work to be done — it may not be such a bad thing that the launch is delayed.
No, if you look at the schedule, the real delay is based on the situation in French Guiana. As soon as the satellite is operational in geostationary orbit the X-band payload will begin operations.
How do you evaluate the contract with Thales Alenia Space as far as technology transfer and training?
I don’t want to seem like I’m on a merchandizing campaign here, but the partnership with TAS has been perfect. We had a contract with these guys and we were allowed to absorb technology working side by side with the their engineers. We worked together and we got the satellite ready at the end of November last year.
Everything was prepared for launch then and on Dec 5 we had a visit from our minister of defense to receive the satellite in Cannes, because it was ready.
We had 40 or 50 Brazilian guys working side by side with TAS from the beginning. In terms of how it was carried out with the milestones and so forth, I would say it was perfect.
There are two separate technology programs. Ours is the Technology Absorption Plan, TAP.
TAP was managed by the Brazilian Space Agency and coordinated by us at Visiona. It was not not a matter of sending people to Cannes so they could just sit there and saying they were part of a huge contract. The guys had tasks and evaluations of their performance. We received their evaluations here in Brazil to assess their performance against the targets we had set.
We had people from INPE [Brazil’s space research institute], from the Brazilian Space Agency, from Telebras and the armed forces. It was an impressive way to manage the program with us. We had a lot of help from the top management of TAS in increasing the partnership with the engineers.
And not only Cannes, there was Toulouse also. We worked very tightly with these guys. It was impressive.
What happens to these newly trained people? What can you offer them for the future?
We are working on certain developments, internally. We are developing software for satellite attitude and orbit control systems. We will start bench-testing of these with our computers at the end of this year. Our intention is then to try to build a nanosat or a microsat with our software and then test it in orbit.
We hope we can do that toward the end of next year with a dedicated satellite with a small camera to move 30 degrees side to side.
Did this expertise directly from the TAP with TAS?
Not directly from it, but in parallel. The contract with TAS includes six months of satellite operations, post-launch. But for new projects we do not have anything specific.
If I’m an engineer trained on the SGDC program, what do I do next?
As for new projects, we do not have anything specific. Our challenge now is to find a new contract with an observation satellite that we could produce with much more Brazilian content than for a geostationary satellite that would succeed SGDC-1.
The idea for a second SGDC satellite is to have the integration being done in Brazil.
No SGDC-2 satellite has been funded.
When and if it happens.
Do you have the needed installations to assemble and test a geo telecoms satellite?
If we decided on an all-electric satellite it could reduce the volume needed at INPE. INPE has a thermal vacuum chamber for up to 2 tonnes. They did CBERS [China-Brazil Earth observation satellite] there.
INPE has a project to enhance their capacity and expand their testing facilities. It’s a proposal they have made.
Would Brazil’s space agency, AEB, be your customer for a small observation satellite?
It could be. So could be the Brazilian Air Force, or the Ministry of Environment, or the Ministry of Agriculture. Why not try to join these organizations in a single program to save on the budget? It would be a multiple use of payloads on behalf of doing something sooner than we could do otherwise.
Is this the direction the government wants to move in?
There is an effort to merge the national space program with the military program. They match up well. But it takes time. We are outside the discussion because it’s a matter of government policy. We are waiting for a direction and I hope to have some conclusion of this analysis by the end of this year so that we can start offering solutions.
Brazil is a continental country. The demand for satellites is huge. We don't have a metrological satellite, we don't have an observation satellite, we have an old, outdated [SCD] data-collection satellite. We don't have a tactical communications satellite. We can put multiple users of satellite onto a multipurpose platform.
And this depends on…
Policy and budget and a clear direction of where the space program goes.
There is no backup for the X-band on SGDC.
They are using Star One today.
But that’s only a couple of channels in X-band, far less than SGDC.
True, but as a backup it can work. If you look at the national space program document there is an SGDC 1, 2 and 3 that are part of the total sovereignty in terms of space communications for security and defense that is the objective.
Brazil has become a popular place for commercial Ka-band — Hughes, ViaSat, Yahsat, ViaSat and Eutelsat are all looking at commercial business.
Yes, but these commercial operations are proposing coverage of 80 percent of the population, where people can afford it — in the middle and and south part of the country. Where is the digital inclusion there? SGDC is 100 percent of the territory covered by Ka-band. This is the digital inclusion to be part of the commercial program that Telebras is preparing.
Assume a successful SGDC launch, then testing, with full service by the end of the year. Then what for you?
We then start discussions about SGDC 2.
For X-band only?
Both X- and Ka-band, and if Ka-band is not enough, possibly Q/V band, which some Telebras guys are interested in. The fact is we do not have mission requirements yet and we have no defined orbital slot.
Why not co-locate with SGDC-1 at 75 degrees west?
Not necessarily. 75 west is not ideal for Brazil, it’s better for the Pacific, like Chile. There are other positions available that people are evaluating.
Future development should not depend on the economy improving. We have huge need for satellites in this country, and we will have a space policy at some point. In my opinion what we need is agreement among all the government organizations about space policy so that we all move in one direction. Why not just pull together what everybody needs and find a solution?
Several Latin American nations have purchased Earth observation satellites, but not Brazil.
If we are moving forward with border control and the Sisfron program, it’s 17,000 kilometers of border that needs to be controlled, starting with local communications and small radars. The next step is UAVs and then satellite communicationsfor them. There is a huge demand for observation. In the Air Force program there is a constellation called Carponis. It is not dead yet.
But here to, we need to see how such an investment can serve other areas in the government. There are a lot of applications. It all comes back to a single strategy for space, civil and military — agricultural, environmental, hydraulic operations.
Peter B. de Selding