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thumb_wolfgang_biedermannWith five new satellites about to be launched, RapidEye is poised to deliver high resolution remotely sensed imagery and services to users interested in landscape change detection. With a high re-visit frequency, these services will be particularly useful to the agriculture, forestry and landscape change detection market including the insurance industry. V1 Magazine editor Jeff Thurston met with Wolfgang Biedermann, CEO, RapidEye to discuss the upcoming launch and to learn about the new services the company will provide.

V1 Magazine:
The five RapidEye satellites will soon to be launched. This must be exciting for you. Can you tell us what the company is thinking and experiencing as the big day approaches?

Biedermann: There is still a sense of frustration because of the delays over the last few months. It is hard to keep the excitement up with continued delays, however, we are confident that the launch will occur later in August and the excitement is coming back. For the most part our daily lives did not change much during these delays. We are out in the market seeking new customers and developing new solutions for them. We’ve been ready for the launch for a while and our internal teams look forward to the real thing having prepared and run test procedures often.

V1 Magazine: What is causing the delays?

Biedermann: The delays have been caused for numerous reasons. Some have been due to issues surrounding the building of the satellites themselves. More recently the delays were related to  launch issues.

{sidebar id=195 align=right} V1 Magazine: What products do you expect to make available?

Biedermann: We will primarily offer two kinds of products. The first will be the images themselves. This will include raw imagery and geo-referenced images ranging up to orthophotos. Our processes are automated to provide these products. Our second type of products will be services based on remote sensing data. These value-added services are at the core of our business strategy and will support our long term sustainable business growth.

We anticipate to offer subscription services and contracts where we will provide regular information. The information will primarily be related to biomass and be applicable to the agriculture and forest industries and sectors. This will also include businesses offering tertiary services related to them. RapidEye has invested heavily in the knowledge base to support this kind of information and generate these types of services.

V1 Magazine: Who do you expect your main customers will be?

Biedermann: For our data products we expect that government agencies will be our main customers to begin with. However, for the management information services we are receiving significant interest from the agriculture and forestry sectors, e.g. insurance companies and others. We are also seeing more and more demand in many industries interested in a high level of change detection due to the fact that our satellites will have a very high re-visit frequency.

V1 Magazine:
RapidEye satellites and services appear to be highly suitable to the study and business support of many important issues in society today including climate change, environmental change and a rise in natural disaster related work. Can you comment on this?

Biedermann: It is true. We are uniquely positioned to support educational, research and business related needs associated with environmental, landscape change and disaster related work. With 5 satellites our ability to provide improved frequency and higher re-visitation is a strong advantage. The issue of cloud cover has traditionally been a great obstacle when attempting to provide thorough coverage, one that we have investigated extensively. We also know that there are significant issues that relate to seasonal changes.

Since we have a higher re-visit frequency, our ability to provide cloudfree imagery and results is significantly improved. We are able to take up to 4 million squarekilometers of images per day. During each orbit of each of our 5 satellites we can image an area of 1,500  x 77 kilometers.

We expect to be able to provide 1-2 images per month almost cloudfree conditions for most places around the planet. This was not previously achievable using other satellite systems. Accordingly, we think that this will provide the impetus to establish new types of businesses which depend on the high frequency and reliability of data being available. As a result we can, potentially, drive the marketplace into a new direction based on this higher level of information availability.

V1 Magazine: Many people have depended upon LandSat images for environmental and landscape related work over the years, and there have always been issues of timing and resolution related to that imagery. How do you expect to improve upon that?

Biedermann: When RapidEye was being planned and prior to investment, we did a lot of research and looked into the various products being offered and the issues that users were experiencing as well as the processes that they were attempting to seek answers for. For example, for the Federal Republic of Germany we found that the best coverage that one could expect was about 1 full coverage every 18 months or so. Since three agricultural cropping cycles would occur over that time frame including winter crops, we knew that almost any meaningful information services or modelling efforts for agriculture were simply not possible since no images were available.

We plan to increase both timing and frequency with our services. This will enable users to acquire information about any crops in a timely manner, but also several times over a growing season, thereby supporting the development of modelling biomass dynamics, for example.  Compared to LandSat or any other satellite with an optical sensor, this will result in great improvement. In addition we will provide significantly better spatial resolution than Landsat.  In the case of other providers, although they may offer higher resolution, the re-visit time cannot match the frequency RapidEye will offer.

V1 Magazine:
What will be the resolution of RapidEye imagery? What type of turnaround can a customer expect?

Biedermann: Imagery will be available at 6.5m ground resolution with a 5m ortho-rectified pixel size. The swath width will be 77 km and we will be able to acquire 4 million square kilometers of imagery per day. We anticipate to provide a turnaround time from acquisition of an image to delivery of about 3-4 days. In emergency related or specially ordered work we will be able to deliver image information within 24 hours.

V1 Magazine: Can you describe any benefits of 5 satellites over 1 operating 1 satellite?

Biedermann: This is an interesting question because it really goes to the matter of failure and dependability. If needed, we can provide imagery services with only 3 operating satellites while maintaining the daily revisit capability. With 4 satellites we almost meet our stated objectives and services. The difference between one satellite and five basically amounts to the question of failure. If only one satellite is launched and something goes wrong, then the entire program fails, customers are affected and the business cannot go forward.

In the RapidEye case with 5 operating satellites or even less, there is higher reliability. The data flow is continuous and not affected by the partial or complete failure of one or even two satellites. The management of our customers will hopefully come to rely on our services and information to support sustainable business models.

We sometimes call our satellites ‘flying rocks’ because they do not have many moving parts which makes them less susceptible to breakdown or problems. This also means that they are not very agile during one orbit. Consequently we see them as being highly monitoring oriented.

V1 Magazine: The trend is toward more real-time processing and data flows. It seems that processing technology has largely been there for a while but that satellite technology and approaches have lagged behind. What can you say to this?

Biedermann: I think you are right. It is true that processes associated with software technologies have been well developed and some level of standardization is also present enabling smoother work flows. But when you look at the satellite technology today you see a trend toward higher resolution and agility, not necessarily higher frequency and large area coverage. Both directions have merit but we think that our approach is particularly useful for agricultural, forestry and many change detection applications.

{sidebar id=196 align=left} V1 Magazine: One of the difficulties with satellite imagery that many customers and users experience pertains to the minimum quantity or unit they can buy, and often that is still out of their reach. How do you answer that?

Biedermann: While we don’t anticipate that we will sell our products to each individual, we are building a network of partners to service potential users all over the world. We do this not only for the distribution of imagery but also for our information services. This means that we are establishing partners like in agricultural cooperatives, insurance agencies and others to serve markets we cannot reach directly. Reasons for this could be that markets are highly fragmented, we cannot overcome language or cultural barriers or other access restrictions exist. It means that our partners understand why and how people can be using our products and they are able to speak to the customer with knowledge and understanding.

We are also establishing an e-commerce platform to sell low cost imagery products. We want to make it as easy as possible for our customers and see e-commerce developing further over time.

V1 Magazine: What is the relationship of satellite operations to services, processes, knowledge and business in your mind?

Biedermann: While the satellite aspect looks and is interesting, we do not think of ourselves as satellite operators per se. We see the satellites as tools which enable our primary business, which are the geo-services that we provide. We have spent a lot of time and investment on developing services and we sit with our customers to learn and understand their work flows, processes and needs – which are always changing. Ultimately, we are in the business of providing information to our customers’ needs and we hope that they come to expand their needs based on the continuous value of what we can provide to them.

We are probably not a typical German company. RapidEye is very much an international company with employees from more than 20 nationalities and we strive to communicate with our customers in their native language, often matching cultural backgrounds and understanding local work processes and values.

V1 Magazine: How is RapidEye structured?

Biedermann: We are a public company with shareholders, but the shares are not traded. Our company originated in 1996 and was incorporated as RapidEye AG in 1998. We have thirty-five shareholders, five of whom are companies which hold less than 25% of the outstanding shares. A significant portion of our shares are held by our employees.

For our satellites and much of our archiving and processing equipment we have entered into an agreement with a general contractor who is MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) of Canada who are providing turnkey services and delivery. We chose this way to procure our system because it reduces the interfaces and therefore the potential for conflicts between suppliers in case one of the system elements does not meet the specifications. We will accept the system after the commissioning phase, which we expect to be three months. Then operations of the total system will turn over to us. Once we have assumed the responsibility for the system we will follow this agreement up with another one that enables us to have access to highly specialized support that we simply do not have in case of technical problems we cannot solve ourselves.

V1 Magazine: Where are the ground stations located?

Biedermann: Our ground station for tasking, telemetry and control is located here in Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany. The data download will take place in in northern Norway using the facility our our partner KSAT.  

V1 Magazine: I understand you have an interesting ‘name the satellite’ contest happening. What’s that all about?

Biedermann: Well, we wanted to give something back to the community that has supported us for so long and so well. The contest involves selecting a name for each of our 5 satellites. Full information about the contest is available from our offices or online and each entry includes provision for 10 Euro. All of the funds will be used to support the Gollwitz House program here in Brandenburg which is designed to promote tolerance between people and nationalities – something we have an interest in due to the wide number of different nationalities in our company.  We encourage your readers to participate in naming our satellites.

V1 Magazine: Earlier you mentioned that RapidEye has a potential to change the way imagery is used. What are the challenges in your view?

Biedermann: The timing and frequency of our images are going to have major impacts in the marketplace we think. They will enable new applications and higher levels of modelling. But equally important is the way we present information to our customers. We need to give customers solutions for their information problems in the form they want it. This will impact many users, for example, precision farming users who will now have the opportunity to buy what they need in terms of useful information and knowledge without having to operate all the complex technology. It will also enable us to seek out and form partnerships with value added partners who are capable of developing imagery based applications in new ways.

V1 Magazine: What are the challenges in the satellite imagery and services market in your view?

Biedermann: I think the overall challenge surrounds the issue of reliability. While most people we talk to think of us as a satellite company, this is only partly correct. The fundamental concept and the driving issue behind RapidEye is to deliver management information to our customers that is useful to them.  If we don’t overcome this issue of reliability then we are stuck in an early adopter’s mode where only the technically adventurous and capable can participate and the prices remain high. 

Most people do not want to hear about problems. They don’t care why the satellites work or not, and they don’t care what the software is doing or not. They care about reliable and continuous information upon which they can establish viable sustainable businesses and make decisions. They need to integrate this information into their work flows; and here dependability matters. 

On the other hand, I think we are on the verge of facing a whole new set of challenges. These challenges will emerge from having the kinds of services you and I have just talked about. This will lead to new approaches for developing applications and solving problems. We need to listen to our customers, learn from them and be prepared to think in different ways and invest in new methodology and advanced technology.

V1 Magazine: What do you consider to be your greatest asset?

Biedermann: I think I can say quite comfortably that we have some of the most talented and knowledgeable people who understand and know about biomass and change detection working for us. Our employees are our greatest asset. They are truly global in knowledge, experience and capability. This enables us to develop excellent applications and solutions going forward and will ultimately sustain and grow our company. 


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