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‘Contrary to impression outside, Chinese market is very open’

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After establishing almost a monopoly in the Chinese market, Beijing Space Eye Innovation Technology is taking its diversification strategy more seriously. Giving a brief detail about the company’s future business plans, CEO Xiaoyang Cheng talks about how they are going to expand the distribution network and become a one-stop solution provider at a global level.

Beijing Space Eye Innovation Technology CEO Xiaoyang Cheng What are the main focus areas of Beijing Space Eye Innovation Technology?

We not only want to bring all available pixels to the market in China but also to use these imageries for various applications and government projects. In the last 10 years, we have successfully distributed 10 million km scale imagery in China. We can serve more than 1,000 customers, among which the main focus has been government agencies and institutions. We offer our products to all 31 provincial governments in China and many industries that are related to mapping, land-use, mining, telecommunications and transportation.

Raw data alone cannot solve problems of the customer. That is why we position Space Eye as a one-stop service and multiple remote sensing data source which provides solutions to its customers. Data can be sourced from agencies in different countries or a domestic data source point. We know how to process this huge amount of pixels properly and convert it into a value-added product for customers from different industries. Space Eye is not just focusing on one data source but instead aligning with different data collators from America, Asia, Europe, etc. In addition to DigitalGlobe, we are also working with Korean Satellite (KOMPSAT) and we are its official distributor in China. We are also working with some software providers, such as PCI Geomatics from Canada, to develop more localised solutions to satisfy customers who need to process huge amount of imagery within a short span of time. Recently, we launched our online platform mapenjoy.com to put this data online. This is part of our endeavour to change, adapt and evolve our company’s positioning and business models.

Does it make you the biggest player in your field in China?

We have the vision to become a one-stop service provider. But when we look at the Chinese market, we realise that we cannot cover all the industries and provide applications for them, as it would require a huge organisational strength. We prefer to stay professional and focus on the areas in which we are strong. It is enough to make our company grow healthily with a reasonable size of team. In this way, we can survive and grow for longer period as professionals. We are open to collaborate with other industry leaders to procure resources or software to supply few solutions. In turn, we help them to develop new customers using our advantage in that industry.

When you talk about diversification, are you talking about tying up with different players? Is it about collaborating with other foreign industry players?

We have a stronghold in few industries such as mapping, land-use etc. We very well understand our customer’s need and hence call ourselves as one-stop solution provider, even outside China. Further, we are diversifying to see the future needs of the market and find out the best solution. We diversified from data source to software, and from software to solution and services. We have realised that many of our customers now not only use all of our solutions but are also ready to invest further.

Since last year, we started distributing Chinese satellite imagery abroad as we found it has traction in the global market. Experts agree that the Chinese government-owned resources and satellite imageries would grow in the coming years. This has created a great interest in how these Chinese satellites operate and the pixel quality of imagery for commercial purposes.

So BSEI has become like a window in bringing foreign imageries to China and take Chinese imageries to the international markets?

This is our plan. When we started distributing DigitalGlobe images in China 10 years ago, Chinese imageries were not available for commercial use. But lately, the Chinese government has invested in satellite technology. And when we found this chance, we took the job with great interest. We have been distributing foreign imagery for several years. We are also surprised that now we have a chance to do something similar.

We are recognised in various markets around the world. We have years’ of experience in China of working with mapping, agriculture and transportation sectors. We already have around 15 resellers or partners worldwide. We grew this distribution network, and we plan to double it by next year.

When we distribute images from foreign satellites of Korea, America, etc, it is easy for us to supply the imagery directly to the customer or government organisation from the image provider. I can buy half-metre imagery from DigitalGlobe and distribute it in China. There are of course regulations regarding control-distribution of topographic map etc. On the other hand, we can freely provide raw imagery from Chinese satellite to any other Chinese end user, be it government or private.

Contrary to the impression outside, the Chinese market is quiet open. The government is quite supportive of this free distribution and commercial use of various domestic and international satellite imagery sources. Of course, the government has some other satellites which are not used for commercial purposes and we have no access to them. But imagery from government resource satellites like ZY-1, TH-1 bear no restriction.

How has the Chinese earth observation market evolved? Has it always been open?

Chinese government is very supportive of developing the earth observation market. We are happy to see private companies entering the EO market. They are developing their own commercial satellites. They already operate a Beijing-1 satellite. Now they are working on a constellation of three commercial satellites at a level of 1m. With this, the government’s EO programme and commercial observation market will grow faster and usher in lot of new possibilities and challenge.

The challenges and the opportunities depend on how we process the imagery and make it a value-added product. For example, with this huge amount of data from Chinese satellite, only 5% pixels are being processed and used. This is due to lack of good solution for image processing and bad product definition or service models. Some satellite imagery is wasted, and becomes useless soon after it is collected. So it is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Our partners like PCI Geomatics develop solutions for automatic process of these images. We develop a model for different Chinese sensors. In my point of view, there are at least 30 ONE MAPS which are currently in planning stages of different organisations. If organisations have the budget they would like to make their own ONE MAP, and they will be using their own suitable satellite imagery resolution. They have not yet been unified by the central government because in China different departments have their own budget, powers and requirements. This also means that it’s not easy to duplicate these maps.

Because geospatial infrastructure in China is diversified, it is both a challenge and an opportunity. With these one map, solution providers in China — who know the market and want the technology developed in China —have a good opportunity ahead of them. It would be interesting to see how they will support their customers with different pixels, software solutions, applications or service model. This industry is moving towards a service model. It would be interesting to see if it would be government based or commercial based model.

Would you say there is within the wider sectors of the economy like transport, construction etc. an awareness about the geospatial industry?

This is the future. New industries like transportation, animal protection, etc. are really interested in learning how EO data can be used to grow their business. In this way, they are closely monitoring the EO industry and trying to develop different solutions. They are doing this in different ways. They partner with a commercial solution partner to develop a service model. For other consumer products, they might be more interested in acquiring other company with the expertise. The latest being Alibaba acquiring Autonavi.

However, it will take a long term for geospatial solutions to find their place in the industry solutions. They will have to go through convergence. But as a geospatial or EO player, one has to find their own specified position and be more patient. The real operational model will take a longer time than what we expect. As a supplier of solutions, one cannot be too optimistic that a service model will realise its value in a short time. It’s a big topic as to why geospatial is not even considered as an industry. That’s why we think that we should not be too big, and instead be more professional and attain expertise at some points.

How do you see the global earth observation market shaping up?

As long as countries have EO programmes there will be more competition in the data space. For example, European imagery providers used to lead in the sphere of 2m resolution imagery market in China. But now the market is dominated by Chinese imagery suppliers. The future will be towards a service model. For the government, business and consumer market, there will be more and more innovation and integration of EO resource applications; not only in developed but developing countries too like BRICS countries. Then, there would be more balance in the global market. In fact, in the arena of remote sensing satellites if we combine China, India, Korea, etc., they would be the top remote sensing satellite resources in the world as compared to the ones existing in developed countries like USA etc.

Globally, there is a consensus building on removing the restrictions on data for greater good. What are your views?

Every government has launched an EO programme, and they will be excited of its success. But finally they will have to realise who is using the pixels, and how to use it for the benefit of the public. I think more and more restrictions will be removed by the government as the programme progresses. For public and for solution providers, how this restriction removal will benefit, and how they will innovate is important. How these are used for socio-development purposes will decide if restrictions will be taken off. However, if industries use this opportunity to exploit it, it will take longer time for restrictions to be eased by policy makers. I am looking forward to this development in the future.