Episode 23 of the Space Industry podcast is a discussion with Giovanni Pandolfi of Leaf Space, a Ground Segment as a Service (GSaaS) provider headquartered in Italy and with facilities around the world.
Episode show notes
Leaf Space has a major focus on the Ground station as a Service (GSaaS) business model and has served a range of clients across the industry, running both single and multiple missions.
In the episode we discuss some of the lessons and insights from this experience, including:
- The common bottlenecks satellite operators face with ground station access
- The use of standard framework agreements to provide ground segment services to multiple satellites
- Meeting regulatory requirements and conditions across multiple missions
- How Ground station as a Service (GSaaS) framework agreements can streamline procurement and bring satellite operators and ground station managers closer in alignment
- Predictions on the evolution of the ground segment in years to come
The portfolio of Leaf Space
Leaf Track – a fully-managed Launch Vehicle Tracking as-a-service with real-time autotrack and telemetry reception deployed on-demand with the additional support from Leaf Space’s worldwide distributed Leaf Line network.
Leaf Line – a ground segment service in which Ground Station (GS) time is shared between different customers and missions using a high-efficiency scheduling algorithm, optimizing the GS use while satisfying customer needs constraints.
From the operations point of view, Leaf Space carries out all management of the ground segment, therefore the customer will have the important advantage of focusing more on his own core business. To interact with the Leaf Line network customers can use a dedicated API and a real-time data transfer interface through which a proprietary control center or ground segment manager software can be easily integrated.
Leaf Key – a dedicated ground segment solution, suitable for missions that require compliance with stringent requirements for capacity, latency, data transfer paths, and cost-effectiveness.
The deployment of the network backbone is carefully designed following the development plan of the customer’s constellation, guaranteeing the right performance at the right time.
Basing technology and infrastructure on the Leaf Line service assures high reliability, lower deployment time, lower production and maintenance cost that is directly reflected on a better service paired with the cost-effectiveness typical of the Leaf Line service.
Leaf Space takes care of the operations and maintenance of the Leaf Key network, guaranteeing service level agreements allowing the customer to focus on their core business.
Hywel: Hello everybody. I’m your host, Hywel Curtis and I’d like to welcome you to ‘The Space Industry’ by satsearch, where we share stories about the companies taking us into orbit. In this podcast, we delve into the opinions and expertise of the people behind the commercial space organizations of today who could become the household names of tomorrow.
Before we get started with the episode, remember, you can find out more information about the suppliers, products, and innovations that are mentioned in this discussion on the global marketplace for space at satsearch.com.
Hello, and welcome to today’s episode. I’m joined today by Giovanni Pandolfi of Leaf Space, a ground segment as a service provider with headquarters in Italy and sites across the world.
Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about the ground segment as a service business model and how it can improve procurement processes, particularly for satellite integrators and companies that have multiple missions. Giovanni, welcome to ‘The Space Industry’ podcast. It’s great that you’re with us today.
Giovanni: Hi there. Thanks for having me here.
Hywel: Fantastic. Let’s get into our discussion. When we talk about the ground segment as a service business model, what are the common bottlenecks that you see when it comes to access to ground stations for satellite operators who have multiple missions, particularly with different customers, who they need to serve on different timescales and in different ways?
Giovanni: Well, there are a few. Let’s take a step back by the way, maybe focusing on what these players need to do. It’s typically what we refer about as mission providers or in general as constellation operators. So I will divide the two things. Mission providers are third parties that build satellites for a certain customer and in major part of the cases also they operate the satellite mission of from the ground up.
So they actually schedule the satellite, task it for having for it to imaging for example, or they operate the telecommunication payload or whatever. But the fact is that they control the entire mission from satellite manufacturing, launching, LEOP and commissioning, nominal operation and then the commission it. And they do this for a third party. They just commission the entire mission to them saying, okay, I want this kind of data, or I want you to integrate this payload on a satellite bus and then to operate.
The other part is actually always satellite operators, but in that case, maybe they own their satellite and they operate it directly, but they manage a constellation or multiple satellites to be operated.
In both cases when you handle multiple missions, there are a few bottlenecks. In the first case for mission providers, the fact is that every customer has different requirements. Every payload has different way of operation or tasking and scheduling. So you need to take into account of all these different things when you’re actually providing a solution.
The way for you as a mission provider to make it economically sustainable is to make it as modular as possible, or try to put all the common things together and find solutions for those common things. And the same kind of thing applies for the constellation operators, but maybe there they have much less issues just because typically at least the constellation are based of similar satellites. So similar satellite, similar systems. The way of operation could be much more similar to each spacecraft.
As I said, one of the bottlenecks for examples is mission operations. We need to understand to make everything together. If you are, for example, using different communication boards or transceivers, because you have different data requirements, you need to find for example, ground segments as a service solution for each one, interfaces are a little bit different, the way that you schedule your contracts is a little bit different. Also the price could be quite different because of this thing.
Having a way to do all of these on a unique level and just stay focused on how to better streamline your process saves you I would say a lot of money, some time, but definitely will save you a lot of time. And same thing for constellation operation. If you have an idea of a streamlined process, defined interfaces, defined pricing structure, et cetera, that’s a way better. And your process is much more streamlined.
What we try to do in Leaf is that you define what we call a partnership program where we can partner actually with our customers to define a common framework agreement where we can have different things all put together. And so when they have a new mission, they don’t need to sign or negotiate a new contract. They just need to emit to us a service order. Like they will have to buy a certain component for a satellite. And then we know that we already test everything, that we already compatible. So I would say the bottlenecks are both technical, management or procurement wise, but also regulatory wise.
Hywel: That makes a lot of sense why you’ve split up the customers in that way, the constellation that maybe operates in one way with multiple satellites and then an individual company that manages multiple satellites doing different things for different customers.
You mentioned there your sort of standard framework agreement or the partnership agreement that you have. And you obviously touched on some of the benefits of that. From both your point of view as the ground station service provider and from maybe the satellite operators’ point of view, what advantages does such a standard agreement bring for where there’s a case of requiring to service multiple missions?
Giovanni: Definitely for us, these automatically reflect advantage for our customers. We give them the possibility of this discussion for multiple missions and really understand much more deeply what our customer’s needs for more than one mission. So in case we need to do any development or any integration, knowing that we do it for multiple missions, we can push it much more in our pipeline in general so develop it to much faster.
Our technical advantages are referring to the standardized interface, tested and integrated once, for example the interface between the mission control software and our service, where they assessed once we know that all the other mission that you will activate, if they are not really changing too much they will be already compliant with that.
Any kind of compatibility testing with the baseband processing, being sure that the RF signal that you’re sending actually will be received correctly, decoded correctly, and then the data will be transferred correctly. So there, we have an advantage because we have a system that we know already that is working and then having more and more missions we do use the kind of troubleshooting that you need to do every time that you have a new mission.
Another thing is that of course, having this kind of partnership and having a constant collaboration or discussion with our customers, allows us to know what are their needs, maybe not today, but their need for tomorrow. And so we plan accordingly our expansion of the ground station network, for example, or maybe expansion to other frequency bands that we can use because our customers see a natural trend in that use for the coming years, or even adding a certain feature while because the customer needs to have monitoring and actual metrics that they need for.
So all of these things is more of a partnership model instead of just a provider customer model and makes much more sense for us. It gave us a little bit more of a view and the customer or the mission provider can also plan their missions according to what we have already developed, what we are already operating, the kind of operation that they know is working.
Hywel: So they may change how or what they’re going to downlink for a mission in two or three years time based on the ground stations that you have available, for example, and likewise, you may change the setup at those ground stations and where they’re located based on what your customers need.
And you mentioned, the answer to the first question, that regulation is such an important part of this. So aside then I guess, from the technical benefits that the standard agreement brings, if you could explain how they could help you take care of regulatory requirements that the satellite operator might be obliged to meet, because they’re such a big part of getting a satellite into orbit?
Giovanni: Definitely. A lot of times is a part that is, I would not say neglected, but maybe it’s not considered as well as it should be. But this I think is for the ground segment in general. Particularly about regulations, let’s take always the example of the mission provider. So you have multiple missions planned and you have different customers coming to you saying, okay, I want to put this mission to fly in this orbit, with these specs and so on.
If you don’t have a natural product or product, I think about the fact that you will have multiple missions, multiple customers, what you will end up doing is actually have one license where satellite or permission that you will launch. And these of course reflects in a lot of time because every license takes a lot of time for just the ITU API preparation, submission, notification, publication, and all the other steps through.
And and you need to repeat that same process every time. And every time, for example, you need to also interface with us to understand what’s your ground station network like right now? What will be like in two years? What are the specs of your ground station network again.
You need to do this every time, but if you think it is about more about an efficient process, what do you could do instead at least if you have a plan for multiple missions is actually filing a single satellite network to the ITU in which you input maybe different frequencies that you are going to use. Maybe you’re not using for the first mission, but at least you have an outlook what you’re doing. And in this way, process is much more streamlined for you because you just do one filing process for your entire satellite network.
And then when you need to launch new missions you just launch them. Then it gets notified. And on our side, this is streamlined because we need, of course, to do one license for every ground station that we have in every country for every mission that we follow. But if multiple missions are below the same satellite network, we just need to do it once. And in this way, it just helps reduce not only the time of filing, but also if you need to launch one satellite in the next three months, because we have an emergency, or you have a customer that’s wants to launch as fast as possible, we can directly operate your satellite from the day that you launch instead of waiting for the actual approval of the license.
That in some cases it takes even up to several months. And in general, this process helps for the coordination at the country’s level with other operators in case if you’re using a frequency band that needs to be coordinated. So in general, I believe the base concept is always try to plan as much as possible your future needs, maybe not specifically the single mission needs, but specifically in terms of business. And doing this together with us, we can do it once together and then we are okay, let me say for the rest of the life, at least for the rest of the life of the contract.
Hywel: For the satellite operator, it’s a case of trying to think like a network operator, try and be forward looking and prepare. And that’ll help things. And then obviously you’re working with the ground station network partner in yourselves or alternative companies.
Giovanni: Right now, I believe it makes much more sense in the kind of market, the NewSpace market that we are right now, because the market itself allow for this kind of thinking.
So if I was doing this few years ago, maybe it didn’t have the outlook so far to build up all these things. So it was better to focus on a single mission each time. But now the market is a little bit more mature. Let me say, the mission providers are also more mature. Their offer is more mature, so they can have an outlook on actually the missions that have already as backlog or the planned missions. And so have it is future or forward looking approach definitely pay off.
Hywel: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about things on the commercial side. I wonder if you could maybe elaborate how the volume and the pricing structure can work for operating in a standard framework agreement across multiple admissions for a satellite operator?
Giovanni: Let’s start from the basics, as a service provider, we need to have all our ground stations running efficiently and this means try to increase the duty cycle or the number of contacts per day that one single ground station does as much as possible. Because in this way, of course our costs are much better amortized. And then the price that we can provide to our customers is much better. So what we came up with for this partnership program is actually built a volume-based discount in our pricing structure.
So we have our pricing model that is based on a price/minute of contact. For example, depending on the data rate that we are transmitting or downlinking to or from the customer, from the satellites. But then we have different ranges of specific price, depending on the volume of minutes that we are handling day by day with a specific customer and a specific context.
All this complicated thing to just say, of course, as much missions we are handling under the same contract, the more volume we will actually provide of contacts per day, and then the lower the price per minute will be. And this is really good for economics of scale, because it’s really fixed. This is our standard volume discount that we have, and you can actually directly see your projections in terms of how many missions you will have one day and that you can see what will be the price/minute for you. This applies to any active mission that we have for a single customer under the same contract.
So even though you will have slightly different missions. So for example, one mission just doing a TT&C and another mission doing X band downlink at high data rate, it still counts as as the same volume of minutes per day. And since we do it daily, also you can actually have a favourable pricing structure.
Hywel: Interesting. So you’ve really broken it down to the core of data per day, minutes per day. So that’s brilliant. Apart from streamlining pricing, based on volume and helping to meet the regulatory requirements as we’ve discussed, what are the sort of improvements, do you think, do you foresee, adding to a ground segment as a service operation like yours in order to keep adding value in the future to satellite operators?
Giovanni: One thing for sure is what we discussed before. So doing a one-time integration, so we have really simple interfaces. Our customers are integrating with our system quite quickly, in the matters of hours. I will say it’s really easy to do that. But one thing that is really important when you’re handling multiple missions is not to rebuild the interface or re-test it every time. If you can do it once and then using that as also your benchmark, then you save money because you don’t need to redevelop or any integration every time, you save time because of course integration time, but also testing time and so on. And also you can better address your operations to be aligned with the kind of interfaces or metrics so that we provide.
In addition to that, let me say this type of operational mission management process that saves time and money. Another fact is that with this kind of partnership, we really want to discuss with our customer what they want us to do in order to improve the service.
Having these framework agreements in place give us a better outlook to work on their missions and so we can say, okay, this customer is asking us to develop this and this feature that we can put in the pipeline, because it makes sense for us to put in the pipeline. And also because any feature maybe that is needed for customer A can be used also for customer B, C and D. So it’s really more as I said, as a partnership than just as a provision of service, because we want to improve our service as our customers need us to do.
Hywel: And that makes a lot of sense from a business perspective. Thanks for explaining that. And I guess my final question builds onto that. Please, only share things you’re allowed and you’re comfortable sharing, but maybe based on the emerging requirements of your customers or the future requirements that you think your customers might have and the trends and changes you’re seeing in the industry, I wondered if you could explain to us a little bit about where you see the ground segment as a service market moving?
Giovanni: That’s a good question. I know it’s a question that to find an answer and you need a crystal ball I would say. There are a few trends that we see quite strongly, internally talking with our customer, et cetera.
Let me say some common trends that we are seeing is getting to use higher and higher frequencies to enable a higher throughput in downlinking for Earth Observation missions, but also uplink and downlink wise maybe for gateways, communication for constellation or broadband communication in general. And this is not just higher frequencies in the RF, but it means also quite a lot of higher frequencies to get to optical communication.
And that of course there is the need to evolve the ground segment as a service not just to support LEO missions, but also to support the higher orbit missions in MEO, GEO in some cases, and also cislunar, deep space. Really to evolve some kind of method to support other orbits, hardware, kind of spacecraft, not just to NewSpace or small satellites.
One thing that we really believe a lot inside Leaf Space, it’s not just that these kind of trends, but actually, and I believe this is a partnership that we’re building really that direction, is to see a more and more interconnection between satellites and the ground segment. Just because right now, technological point of view, but also from a service point of view, we can handle that. Before, and it’s still true for some ground station as a service provider, the satellite operator is actually the one driving also the kind of views for the ground segment. And that’s definitely true but it also means the satellite operator needs to book, for example, specific passes over a specific ground station, at a specific time.
This is a method that we are using from the start of the market and makes sense to till a few years ago, when the number of satellites was, or the number of station was much higher let me say than the number of satellites. Right now it’s totally the opposite and so we need to have more interconnection between satellite operation, ground segment operation, and overall mission operations. For example, to push autonomous scheduling algorithms that can do the scheduling activity of the network to supply the actual service that is needed by satellite operators, without them to do anything manually. But also getting more and more lower level of kind of automation of operation on both sides.
So apart from let me say technological perspective, RF-wise or frequency wise, there is also a lot of innovation that could be done on the actual network operation scheduling and service provision.
Hywel: Oh, brilliant. We touched on some of those points actually in our previous podcasts back in March, when we spoke about the importance of flexibility and versatility and compatibility between different companies and with emerging things like the optical wavelengths and stuff being used.
A lot going on in the industry. And I think we’ve covered quite a bit of it today. Yeah I guess it’s a good place to wrap up. Thanks very much, some really interesting insights into the ground segment is a service business model and what it can really bring to companies that have this challenge and opportunity of managing multiple missions. We really appreciate you spending time with us on ‘The Space Industry’ podcast today.
Giovanni: Thanks to you for having me here. And I’m really glad to participate in this and I’m following all your other podcasts. So it’s really good to know to have this way of talking in the market. I believe it’s really. And it gives us a lot more understanding of what’s going on.
Hywel: Thank you. We appreciate it. To all our listeners out there, remember, you can find out more about Leaf Space on satsearch platform at satsearch.com.
You can find out about the individual aspects of the company’s ground segment as a service business models, make requests for more information, technical information or commercial information, as well as introductions to the business. And we also have various other pieces of content we’ve produced in collaboration with Leaf Space. Be sure to check that out on our blog, podcast and the website.
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