‘We can assist India with our collection capabilities’

‘We can assist India with our collection capabilities’


Astrium is all set to launch its next satellite, Spot6 from India. In an interview to GeoIntelligence, Joerg F Herrmann, Senior Strategy Manager, Astrium GmbH, Germany, talks about the company’s plan to work closely with India, their successful partnership with German space agency, DLR and their future plans…

Joerg F Herrmann
Joerg F Herrmann
Senior Strategy Manager, Astrium GmbH, Germany

Astrium is all set to launch its next satellite, Spot6 from India. In an interview to GeoIntelligence, Joerg F Herrmann, Senior Strategy Manager, Astrium GmbH, Germany, talks about the company’s plan to work closely with India, their successful partnership with German space agency, DLR and their future plans…

Q. Can you tell us about your role as Senior Strategy Manager?
My current role is in continuation of my previous position with a focus on future plans. I initiated the radar commercialisation programme on the industrial side in Germany. And I was the founding CEO of the company, Infoterra, which is part of the pubic-private partnership (PPP) scheme to commercialise the TerraSAR capabilities in Germany. I was in that role for nine years. I then moved into the strategy group in order to develop concepts and business models for the next generation of commercial SAR.

Infoterra was always a wholly owned subsidiary of Astrium. But today, the change that has been implemented is integrating all the capabilities in geospatial services in Germany, France, UK and Hungary into a new organisational group called Astrium GEO-Information Services. Although the individual national entities still exist, we are now operating at a group level. Here, we are focussing on geospatial services, and the German component is to provide continuity in commercial SAR services and applications. That’s also the area I focus on.

Q. What’s the kind of government participation in the company?
The company or the organisation itself is truly private. It was in 1997 that we started discussing with the German Government about the capital expenditure for commercial space infrastructure, and ultimately agreed to implement it in a publicprivate partnership (PPP) scheme for the first time. The talks materialised in 2002 with the signing of the first PPP contract; and that continued with the second PPP for TanDEM-X mission, a few years later. These two PPP activities are currently in implementation. Both the spacecrafts are in orbit, there are clear work sharing and cost sharing schemes between the private and public parties involved, and the partnership will continue until the end of the life of the satellites.

Q. It has been more than a year that TanDEM-X has become functional. How has the launch complemented TerraSAR-X and how is it benefitting the company?
We are trying to address the demand for high-quality digital elevation models and digital terrain models. We can do this with a single TerraSAR satellite by applying radargrammetry; and the radargrammetry approach is already providing an attractive digital elevation model (DEM) with an accuracy of better than 10 metres in height and a posting of 10 metres, but is not optimum for providing large coverages. It’s more of a local and regional DEM, typically being used to generate height lines for topographic maps, particularly in cloud prone areas.

With TanDEM-X, we have a little bit extended posting of 12 m. That also has to do with the optimisation of the data collects. With TanDEM-X, we are covering the entire global landmass which is 150 million sq km, so it’s a huge exercise. DLR started collecting the data about a year ago. We are in the second year of collecting and the multiple collects is a requirement due to the fact that, depending on the slope angles, you will need more coverages in order to meet the required accuracy. So if you have a flat terrain, a single coverage is enough, and if you have 20 degrees tilt, you prefer to have two coverages; and if you go alpine, you prefer to have three or even four coverages. Also, considering that you can apply different view angles by merging ascending and descending coverages, you reduce the voids, the holes in the information.

Q. How do you ensure that the product meets the expectations of consumers? What kind of markets do you address?
We are addressing major mapping authorities. We collect data, process and improve it. In fact, after the collection of data, there’s a stage called editing the product because it might require typical things like hydro-enforcement, getting rid of spikes and other artifacts to improve its quality. We expect to have the database, the core database readily available by 2014. And as we go along, we will start editing country-by-country depending on the demand.

Q. The partnership between the German space agency, DLR, and Astrium GmbH is considered to be a case of successful public-private partnership (PPP). What do you think is the reason behind it?
Well, like any other good partnership in real life, take the case of marriage for instance, you have a successful marriage if relationship is established on the common basis of frankness and understanding. What brings the ingredients of success in this partnership is that we have the risk and funding sharing in place. Also, in the operational phase, both the research as well as the industrial capabilities related to radar are working very closely together as a team. So bringing these two components together have contributed to the success.

Q. What usually happens is that the private partner finds that the government is largely over-bearing and they don’t get the required autonomy in the functionalities that they are into. Do you also face that sort of problem?
Well, we saw these problems beforehand and accordingly devised a concrete model on the sharing of responsibilities. Of course, as you go along, you learn and you may need to fix some of the areas; and we have a mechanism in place for that. Also, we both follow the same goal to materialise the commercialisation of this capability.

Q. You have been credited with having pioneered the commercialisation of space radar. But nowadays, we find that survivability of commercial satellite companies is a major concern among industry. In fact, survival of private industry is considered to be difficult, if not completely impossible, without the government support. Your take.
Well, typically if you do something new, you tend to plan optimistically for the first time because you want the thing to happen. And as you go along, you learn about the hurdles in the way. In most of the cases, I think, as far as I know, that applies to all my colleagues in the branch – they all are facing hurdles which they did not expect. I guess that has to do with the adoption of our solutions by customers because customers want to be convinced; and we may not have the solution readily available. After all, we could only start developing good products and services once we have the infrastructure in place. And that delays things, but I am very optimistic that most of the initiatives that have been started will continue. Of course, those players in the market who have government’s support are better than those who have to rely on purely commercial approaches. So there’s a little bit of imbalance in the market place.

Q. What according to you are the trends that are driving or will drive the growth in the commercial application of remote sensing technology? And what are the constraints?
In order to convince customers to use services or solutions, you need to make sure that you completely understand their processes, and how your capabilities and contributions can fit best to meet the customers’ needs. Also, in cases where customers are required to invest in order to use your services, you would prefer to keep the customer side investment low to keep him happy. For example, there’s an information service on your iPhone. Suppose you are looking for a particular information, and there’s a cheap app that you can download which provides you the information at a time when you require it and without a big investment. That’s the trend that we have to pursue. In some cases, that has already started to happen.

Q. Sometime back, you had said that the remote sensing industry is likely to witness a significant technical change with the merging of electrooptical and SAR data. What’s the progress on that front?
Primarily, we faced the situation that electro-optical is still the preferred sensor type in the user community. The commercial SAR specifics are complementing with their specific capabilities, which are, for instance, the very high location accuracy which enables to provide GCPs (ground control points), so we GEOINTELLIGENCE May – jun 2012 40 can work with the triangulation with radar very easily – it’s not so easy with electro-optical. We can provide digital elevation models at a highly automated level – that’s another complement. Typically, in cloud prone areas, we can fill the gaps of information collects with the radar; and in some cases, we can do very similar things that we have been doing based on electro-optical for many years. These are some examples where the two sensor concepts are actually creating synergies. In other cases, when the frequency of monitoring is of importance for the user, you can mix the two sensor concepts and provide a more frequent monitoring effect. And in cases where you are required to do comparisons before and after any event, be it a disaster or anything else, you can refer to the electro-optical database and check very quickly with data collects. We have been doing this in a few cases like earthquakes in China, tsunami in Japan, etc.

Q. Do you suggest to your customer that a particular task would be better with SAR or electro-optical or a combination of the two?
As I just tried to outline, it’s a complementary service. The customers deserve the best recommendation in terms of benefit versus cost. So I would not recommend to go left or right in terms of electro-optical or SAR, but rather find the best solution for them. And I think with the setting that we have built in the Astrium GEO-Information Services group, we can do it. But then there are also many cases where we have to collaborate with other vendors in the market. So there’s quite some increase in horizontal collaboration between different vendors which usually has to do with regional constraints.

Q. In India and Pakistan, we have had very tragic cases of avalanches where a number of people have died. Is there anything your company can do to help forecast avalanches?
We are focussing largely on landslides, which is a very comparable thing. There’s a set of hotspots or super sites that we have started monitoring regularly. There’s a service, which we call alert service to make the responsible authorities aware that there has been some significant motion which could very soon lead to a landslide. It’s an alert service which is based on interferometric measurments and enables us to provide a surface motion change with millimetre accuracy. That’s comparable to GPS networks which are already being applied over such areas but these are point measurements. With our measurement approach, which we call surface motion monitoring, we can provide area coverage, also as complement to GPS networks.

As far as forecast about avalanches is concerned, it’s doable in principle. But for the time being, we have been focussing on landslides because the consequences are very stringent in cases where villages or towns are potentially being affected. As for avalanches, you typically keep the settlements away from the risk-prone areas because you know, historically, where the avalanches happen.

Q. What can we expect from Astrium in future, say, in the next 10-20 years?
We are in the process of adding electro-optical sensor systems to our fleet of capabilities. Pléiades 1 has been launched and Pléiades 2A will be launched by the end of this year. Spot 6, the successor of Spot 5, will be launched in August on PSLV from India. With respect to radar, we have started developing the second generation of TerraSAR. This is a new technology concept which capitalises on the experience that we collected with the first generation, and would significantly improve the resolution and detail of information. It will be capable of collecting data with 25 cm resolution. Also, the technology will enhance our maritime surveillance capabilities by providing a very wide swath of up to 400 km. At the same time, we would be able to collect AIS signals from vessels. So the user can see both, in an overlay, the detected ships plus the annotation from the AIS signals. And looking one step ahead towards the end of the decade, there’s going to be the third generation of TerraSAR technology which we call high resolution wide swath (HRWS). This would enable us, for instance, to have a one metre resolution over a swath of 70 km. That would be perfectly suited to do risk prone area management and monitoring in order to measure changes very quickly. Another aspect that’s very important for us to pursue is to set up a constellation of satellites in order to improve the revisit times and the reliability. If you are monitoring very congested areas or areas with high interest, you will need more capacity.

Talking about our TerraSAR-X2 programme, we are preparing a business model which we call WorldSAR with the objective of installing about 3 to 5 of these TerraSAR-X2 satellites, working in a virtual constellation between our partners and ourselves.

Q. Are you in talks with Indian Space Research Organisation for cooperation in future?
We have had quite a few discussions in the past, and until now not much has materialised but we are still hopeful. I think we can assist India with our collection capabilities. India is well positioned with its own resources, with electro-optical and now also with SAR capability, but it is always worthwhile reconsidering and find ways to create a win-win situation for both sides.