Paris / DPA
The plans that Airbus has for a factory in Florida are nothing short of revolutionary for the European aviation giant‘s satellite business.
“In a good year up till now we haven’t built more than 10 satellites,” says Nicolas Chamussy, who was appointed as Airbus’ space chief last year. “We’re going to produce two satellites a day here.”
Airbus will go into batch production for the ambitious OneWeb project, which aims to provide internet broadband service across the globe through a constellation of 648 small satellites.
It’s one example of how Airbus is striking out in a new directions in the aerospace industry in order to maintain its position as aggressive competitors emerge. The rockets and satellites business has been in a state of flux for years now, with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and his company SpaceX turning the rules of the industry on their heads.
The upstarts have pushed down prices for carrier rockets and have made headlines with their seemingly impossible goals – like setting up communities on Mars.
In the satellite market, cost-efficient small satellites are opening the door to new rocket providers and Europe’s more established aerospace companies are having to rethink their business strategies.
“We Europeans have a tendency to be more cautious, perhaps less willing to take risks,” Chamussy told dpa. “But things are changing.”
And so, after tough negotiations, Europe has completely reorganized its carrier rocket business.
Airbus’ new – and cheaper – Ariane 6 rocket for the European Space Agency is set for its first test flight in 2020.
“The restructuring of the whole rocket carrier sector was a hard fight,” says Chamussy. “The structure wasn’t efficient enough to compete with SpaceX and other companies – but it was a risky step to completely restructure the whole thing.”
But will it be enough to challenge SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket?
“We’ll see, we’re doing everything we can,” says Chamussy. The development of Ariane 6 is going well “but we can’t get distracted.”
“Worldwide we’ve counted a dozen rocket carrier projects of the Ariane 6 variety … and around 50 smaller rocket carrier projects,” Alain Charmeau, boss of Airbus Safran Launchers (ASL) said.
Stephane Israel, boss of the European satellite launch services company Arianespace, has warned, “The competition isn’t going anywhere.”
Airbus’ showcase project for its attempt to muscle in on the so-called New Space industry is OneWeb, the brainchild of US internet entrepreneur Greg Wyler. Its goal is to provide cheap, high-speed internet even for remote areas. But it’s not yet clear whether the “internet-for-all” dream can work as a business model. Airbus set up a joint venture with OneWeb a year ago to make the satellites.
An initial 10 production satellites are to be launched in the first half of 2018. “Their development is going well, we’ve chosen almost all of the suppliers,” says Chamussy.
SpaceX founder Musk is also one of their competitors here; with support from Google he is working on a similar internet project involving 4,000 satellites.
With all these plans in the offing, business consultancy Euroconsult calculates that between 2016 and 2025, 9,000 satellites will be launched into space – compared to 1,480 in the previous decade. Even not counting the smallest satellites, experts estimate that their numbers will increase by more than 50 percent.
Despite the fall in prices, the market for manufacturers is expected to increase by 16 percent and that of rocket carriers by 18 percent. Euroconsult estimates that total sales in the satellite industry will reach 280 billion dollars in the decade, with more than three quarters of that coming from public contracts.
Because the aerospace industry is booming, Airbus has employed an extra 1,000 people in the sector for each of the past two years.
“And in 2017 we aiming for another 1,000,” says Chamussy. The sector belongs to their Defence and Space division, which employed 38,000 people at the end of 2015. Airbus won’t reveal exactly how many are involved in aerospace, though estimates by industry experts put it at around a third. Chamussy believe that in the new world of aerospace, Airbus needs to be more flexible and willing to take risks. The business changed its work flows for OneWeb, in order to accelerate the development of the satellite design.
But big, technically challenging projects like the development of the service module for NASA space vehicle Orion can’t be made using the same batch methods as small satellites.
“That’s why we have to be careful not to go completely from one side to the other,” says Chamussy.