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An Exclusive Interview by Paul Trustfull at the Paris Le Bourget Airshow
The world is experiencing great change with increasing threats to national security. Sadly, terrorism continues to grow and spread its evil across the world. Even piracy, a crime that had been relegated to the history books, has reared its ugly head again.
It is clear that preserving safety and security is more important now than ever before nationally, commercially and individually. Satellite images for security and defense therefore are in greater demand by governments across the world. In fact, 4C Controls could not have been launched at a better time. The growth of the business is truly impressive: In two years it has gone from startup to leading player in the Earth Observation Satellite industry with a developing presence in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. 4C Controls’ growth platform is based on cutting-edge technologies and large distribution networks, including high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites and satellite images.
I met the management team at the 2008 Farnbrough airshow in London and a year later at the Paris Le Bourget air show, during which time they succeeded in meeting all their planned milestones. The space and defense business is a very sophisticated niche market with enormous entrance barriers. It can take a decade or more to establish a global presence, especially if the operating footprint is more than 30 countries. That 4C Controls has overcome these challenges in such a short time is impressive and an inspiring business model for the new global economy.
A Revolution in Satellite Image Sales
“The satellite earth observation market that 4C Controls focuses on is in the early stages of development, with little direct competition currently,” says Mr. Riccardo Maggiora, Chief Technology Officer and Director of 4C Controls.
“This contrasts with other satellite market segments such as communication, navigation and astrometry, where competition is fierce. This market is in a situation very much like the early days of the computer industry, when computers started off as tools for military use only and then were taken up for commercial use. It led, as we all know, to a revolution in mass communications. This too, could cause another revolution in satellite image sales. Earth observation uses satellites to take light or radar images of a specific region of interest. 4C has brought, together with industry leaders, an opportunity to offer its customers the most technologically advanced and dynamic satellite imaging technologies and systems available globally. Satellites in our programme will be equipped with radar sensors that can operate under any weather conditions, any visibility and with very short revisiting times. This will provide our customers with SAR imagery down to 1 metre resolution.”
The company’s access to the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia (MENASA) is strategically important for market leaders such as Thales, EADS and Telespazio. Indeed, this is why Telespazio is discussing the acquisition of a stake in 4C Controls as a strategic investor.
This 15-year-old Rome-based company is a member of the Space Alliance between Finmeccanica and Thales and is the largest satellite telecommunications centre in the world for civil use. A partnership with 4C Controls is a major achievement and has ensured the young company a place on the list of most prominent space operators. Through its fully owned subsidiary, Satellite Images & Technologies (4CSatImage), 4C Controls partnered with e-GEOS, a subsidiary of Telespazio, and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) in January, which gave it certain exclusive rights to distribute satellite images to countries in MENASA. e-GEOS was established to market the data and products of the Cosmo-SkyMed Earth Observation programme. Cosmo-SkyMed is an ASI and Ministry of Defence programme based on four satellites equipped with radar sensors that can operate day and night under any weather conditions. “Joining the Italian company is a very strategic move for 4C, because partnering with such a big player will enable it to give clients better and more fulfilling services,” says Prof. Maggiora. “It will also give 4C Controls more credibility and help endear us to our investors.”
4C Controls will now serve as the global first mover platform for the commercialization of SAR earth observation data and product services. It is envisaged that by the end of 2009 the company will be exclusively distributing, in the MENASA region, images from 90% of all in-orbit very-high-resolution satellites.
In mid-June, 4C Controls and Telespazio also started fresh discussions with plans to jointly invest in high-resolution remote sensing and other strategic operational areas. The Gulf Satellites Programme (GSP), which has been developed by 4C Controls, will also be part of the discussion. The GSP cost a staggering US$1 billion and is expected to launch two satellites into orbit by mid-2012 and a third by 2013. There are also plans to launch a fourth one in due course.
“We are excited about this new cooperation,” says Jean-Robert Martin, Chairman of 4C Controls’ Board. “Working with global leaders and high-caliber partners is key to our business.”
On whether Telespazio will acquire shares in 4C Controls and in what quantity, Mr. Martin says: “There is no specific number yet, as this is still under discussion.”
Among the aims of this rapidly rising company are its plans to build three satellite ground stations at strategic locations in the MENASA region. Already, the first station has been planned for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Together with some UAE investors, 4C Controls will build the Gulf Earth Observation Satellite Centre (4C GEOC), the first-ever facility of its kind within the region. “We are very excited about this partnership and we are proud to have this centre in UAE,” says Dr. M. Zahran, general director, Hydra Trading.
The 10,000-square-metre centre will be a dual-use facility and focus on defense applications, civilian security and surveillance and emergency risk management, among others. It will house the direct receiving ground station (DRS) with facilities to acquire, process, analyze and distribute high-resolution data from optical and SAR earth observation satellites, including the Cosmo-SkyMed satellites, across areas of interest. It will also host a Space Engineering Academy with classrooms, laboratories, telecommunications and electronics. The Academy will offer university-level space engineering courses conducted in cooperation with Politecnico Di Torino, one of Europe’s most distinguished science and technology institutes.
Telespazio will help operate and maintain the centre through e-GEOS. It will also provide and manage the training and education programmes. e-GEOS CEO Marcello Maranesi is ecstatic and sees lots of potential for growth in the partnership. “We are very excited about the cooperation. We believe the 4C Centre will be a milestone in our strategy and we plan to support its activities. It is a win-win situation,” he says.
Adds Khalid Abdulla Mubarak Al Buainnain, former Emirates Air Forces chief and vice president, Middle East military and defense,“This is a very good start for the Middle East in terms of space research and technology. It shows that the region is not only good for investments but is also becoming a player in the satellite business. The Middle East will not only be considered financially stable as it has been, but also a major player in space technology. We are very happy and excited to work with 4C. It is like a stamp of recognition.”
Interview by Paul Trustfull, Editor-in-Chief, Global Vision Magazine