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Tech Transfer Seen as a Cost of Winning Business

PARIS — The most successful Earth observation satellite builder on the global market, Astrium of Europe, is willing to accept that 20 percent of its contracts’ value goes to transferring technology to customer nations and ultimately may undermine future Astrium business, a senior Astrium official said Nov. 24.

Jean Dauphin, head of the Earth observation and science division at Astrium France, said Astrium makes a conscious effort to limit the amount of technology it inadvertently gives to customers. But some contracts, most recently one with the government of Kazakhstan, stipulate that the winning bidder must train local engineers in satellite production and satellite imagery analysis.

For these nations, buying a satellite is a way of jump-starting their space industrial base. This in effect means hiring Astrium to help them reach a point where they no longer will need Astrium.

“This is an issue we do look at closely,” Dauphin said during a Nov. 24 space policy conference here organized by Euroconsult of Paris and the French aerospace industries association, GIFAS. “Up to now, technology transfer has only included a few elements, and we think it’s OK if about 20 percent of the contract is tied to this. We think 20 percent is an acceptable level for Europe.”

Both on its own and through its Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) division, based in Britain, Astrium has sold more Earth observation satellites around the world than anyone else in the past 20 years. The recent order from Kazakhstan is for an AstroSat 500 Mark 2 platform, similar to the one Astrium is selling to the Spanish government for Spain’s Ingenio optical Earth observation program. The platform is also used for Astrium’s Spot 6 and Spot 7 satellites, which are being built for Spot Image, which is owned by Astrium Satellites’ sister company, Astrium Services.

In the past, Astrium, with its occasional partner, imaging sensor builder Thales Alenia Space, and SSTL have faced little U.S. competition as they visited the capitals of Asia, Africa and Latin America displaying their product portfolio.

But Dauphin and Cedric Balty, marketing manager for Thales Alenia Space, said during the conference that this may be changing. Both said they feel the presence of U.S. competitors in more places now than before, speculating that the reason is that the coming drop in U.S. Defense Department spending is forcing big U.S aerospace players to look for new markets.

Astrium and Thales Alenia Space are in the hunt for an Earth observation satellite contract from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which for more than a decade has run an on-again, off-again competition, sometimes in partnership with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

U.S. industry officials said other competitors for the UAE satellite include a Ball-Raytheon team and Lockheed Martin on its own as a satellite builder.

One alternative to purchasing a satellite for the UAE would be to purchase high-resolution optical imagery from a U.S. or European company. If that is the option selected, Astrium Services could be competing against Telespazio of Rome, GeoEye of Dulles, Va., and DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo.

Dauphin and other European officials have said the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s recent 10-year, $7.3 billion contract divided between DigitalGlobe and GeoEye will permit the companies to amortize their capital investment, allowing them to sell high-resolution data to other customers at a marginal cost.

Dauphin urged European governments to get more active in integrating Earth observation satellite sales into top-level political discussions with nations seeking their own satellite capacity.

By Peter B. de Selding