Episode 48 is a conversation with Giovanni Pandolfi Bortoletto, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Leaf Space, about Ground Segment as-a-Service and its benefits to the space industry.
Episode show notes
Leaf Space is a ground segment developer, operator, and service provider based in Italy. In this podcast, we discuss:
- It is never too early to start planning your ground segment. RF Licensing is mandatory and can require months to be issued and it is good practice to avoid problems near to launch date
- The amount of money and time saved by choosing a Ground Segment as-a-Service (GSaaS) solution is really not negligible and still, an excellent quality of service is delivered
- By selecting a GSaaS provider, satellite operators easily avoid financial uncertainties and unknown risks related to the ground segment’s deployment and maintenance
Leaf Space’s portfolio
The Leaf Space Ground Station Emulator (GSE) is a complete set of ground equipment for testing compatibility between clients' transceivers and Leaf Space's infrastructure. It is provided on a rental basis and complements Leaf Space's global ground segment-as-a-service (GSaaS) offering.
Leaf Key: Leaf Key is a fully managed, dedicated ground segment-as-a-service (GSaaS) solution designed for operators of medium-large constellations. Leaf Key can replace the large non-recurring engineering (NRE), dedicated personnel, and recurring operational costs associated with developing a proprietary ground segment, with a simple monthly subscription plan proportional to the required performance.
Leaf Line: Leaf Line is a unique, multi-mission ground segment-as-a-service (GSaaS) solution, completely owned and operated by Leaf Space. A globally distributed network of ground stations and a reliable, secure software infrastructure comprise the base of the service, which can manage and optimize requests from different users.
Leaf Track: Leaf Track is Leaf Space’s launch vehicle telemetry reception service that provides launcher telemetry data to clients via the company’s worldwide, distributed Ground Station Network, mainly used by the company’s Leaf Line service.
Please note that while we have endeavoured to produce a transcript that matches the audio as closely as possible, there may be slight differences in the text below. If you would like anything in this transcript clarified, or have any other questions or comments, please contact us today.
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. Thank you very much for spending time with us today on the Space Industry Podcast. We’re very pleased to have all our listeners here and just as pleased to have our guest, who is Giovanni Pandolfi, the co-founder of Leaf Space. We’ve had Giovanni and we’ve discussed Leaf Space on the podcast before, but for those unfamiliar, leaf space is a ground station network manager and operator that develops and manages ground station services for sort of missions all over the world and space services all over the world. So today we’re gonna talk a little bit about the ground segment as a service business model or operating model, and dive into the benefits that it can bring to missions and services in the current space industry.
But firstly, Giovanni, great to have you here with us today. Thank you very much for joining us and is there anything you’d like to just add to that introduction?
Giovanni: Just thanks. Thanks for you guys for having me here on the podcast. It’s good to be back.
Hywel: Fantastic. Okay, so let’s get into this now.
The ground segment is an essential backbone of the space industry. If nothing came down, we wouldn’t know if there was anything up there. So I wondered if you could give us a bit of a brief overview of the ground segment as a service operating model and explain why there might be room for changes or innovation in the market to meet these emerging capabilities.
Giovanni: Sure. The concept in general, the ground segment as a service, let’s say that it’s pretty new. Even though there are roots of it for a few decades, basically, there were. Let’s say a couple of companies actually doing something similar from when the space where it started, basically Swedish Space Corporation, Universal Space Network, that then got acquired by Swedish Space Corporation and KSAT basically, before was let’s say more of infrastructure as a service model.
So let’s have antenna sitting down a really special location and then lease time of it to the start operator. So to satellite users, let’s say that in, in the last years. And I’m glad to say that maybe also Leaf has its own, has its own push and its own role in this. We’ve seen more of a shift, not just from antenna leasing, let’s say business model, but to add some other layers to allow to have more abstraction on the actual use that the comparing zone that we typically say is with the cloud infrastructure, before maybe you were just using some server locating in a really high-reliability place in the data center right now, actually, you don’t even access the physical server, but you access a layer of a structure and then allows you to get definitely more reliability also to scale much faster, much better. And this is basically what ground segment as a service is right now. Layers of abstraction that try to simplify as much as possible the customer experience to actually connect between, to build up a connection between satellites and their mission control or the data delivery on this other side.
And there’s definitely room for innovation. I will say in general in the, on how we communicate with space assets. Because right now we are still like in the twenties or thirties of the terrestrial network here because, we had like in the terrestrial side, we had switchboards or manual switchboards right now in most of the cases to use our ground segmented service still like that, that we need to book to specific slots that to talk with a satellite. So I need to check where the satellite will be in a certain place at a certain time, and then book right to check if there is an availability over a specific station and book it. So it’s a lot of manual process that’s, it doesn’t make sense or at least it should not make sense for the evolution of the space.
If we see also historically in the world, as soon as we have, as we had a tech function on how easy we communicate, we had a natural evolution of the system, of the ecosystems in general because we were able to transfer much more information at the, an easier way and at least we really believe that we need to push for that to happen. Also in the space sector, to have a really efficient and effective way of communication that needs to be definitely easy to have. So there’s definitely a lot of space, let’s say, for innovation.
Hywel: Right. Excellent. So the thing here in the model is that the user requires access to their space-based assets at a certain time period with a certain level of data volumes, data quality, that sort of thing. But they are agnostic as to the ground station resources that provide that access and that data and that consistency and security.
Giovanni: Yeah. Yeah, there are different levels and different layers depending on the, let’s say on the ground segment as a service provider. Each provider has a different flavor.
On our side, we try to really abstract as much as possible to what the customer needs to do to interact with the network, to connect with their satellite. So we try to be as transparent as possible. There are different ways, we have seen our, works because we have a growing and ever-growing demand for our services, and we are able to deliver. So we believe that it’s a good way to, let’s say, take out the burden from the customer of certain works.
Okay. Not just economically, but really in terms of workforce and know, how that they need to have internally in companies.
Hywel: Okay. Brilliant. Let’s go into that in a bit more detail. You mentioned that Leaf has really been in, at the forefront of this kind of operator model for a number of years, and you’ve cast quite a wide net over the ground segment as a service industry segment I guess we would call it.
I wondered if you could give us a bit of an overview of how Leaf’s services and solutions can help in saving time and saving costs for space missions.
Giovanni: It also depends on what you compare this our service with, if we compare with how we used to do back in the days. So basically building out dedicated ground segment for a specific mission. What we say is basically that you don’t need to care of procurement of ground station. You don’t need to care of researching for location that have reliable power, reliable connectivity, and reliable. Let’s say men work to actually do maintenance and so on.
You don’t need to allow to do maintenance. You don’t need to ask for licenses. So there is a bunch of work that we take on ourself just because we do, we have our own network and so on. An additional part of the work that we take off from the customer is also on how we deliver data and how we allow these data transfer between the customer and their space asset because we built up a software architecture to abstract this layer to make it really simple, so we don’t need, for example, a single customer to connect to a specific station when they need to communicate their satellite, but they connect to an endpoint and then we send out messages across the network depending on which station is actually in touch with a certain satellite. And this is totally scalable, so you don’t need to rebuild everything from the ground. You don’t need to send hardware all around the ground stations to be sure that the antenna itself is compatible with your satellite. But we developed that baseband processing software on our side. We rely on standards to help on that.
So at the end of the day the advantage for the customer is that they don’t need to think about how to set up a network. They don’t need to think about how to operate a network. They don’t need to think about how to maintain the network, and they don’t need to have a team that stay that is 24×7 looking at maintaining a certain reliability for network.
And in these, in the space ecosystem, on the new space ecosystem, this is really crucial. Because the new space is dominated by startups or scale up. So whatever allows you to get faster to market or faster to revenue generation, the better it is. If you need to build up everything from scratch, it’s a mess.
And I can say that because we did some mess. And It’s always a pain. It’s good for us to do it because we have different customers that know we can. We really reach a point where we can add a customer to the network and it’s trivial for us. But you need, if you need to do everything from scratch for just your mission, it doesn’t make sense.
And also since the rate of innovation technology is so fast, you can launch a mission, have a ground segment that is perfect for that mission and that the following on mission is a totally needs some totally different architecture because of requirements that you didn’t envision before. And this is something that we take into account in our design, in our deployment of the network, of course. But if you need to rebuild a new network for its mission, It’s a lot of money thrown away basically.
Hywel: Yeah, absolutely. And I, I think also the, maybe the competition in the industry is Makes sense. Cause there are aspects of missions that are becoming a bit more commoditized and there are aspects where competition is increasing and therefore teams need to specialize or at least specialize in some aspects of their product or services that they can really be the leaders in. And if the ground station is not the core competency, maybe you should consider whether or not trying to specialize in it is right for your team rather than your payloads or whatever it is.
Giovanni: And now there are a lot of options. Apart us, there is K SAT, there is Atlas, RBC, then, we can have different discussions and all of that. But I think the good thing is that there is a market. Okay? There is a, there is an offer, a differentiated offer also. And if you think just a few years ago there wasn’t such a thing. I understand why companies like, Planet, Spire, they needed to build their own their own network because there was nothing on that and the, it’s also the reason why they build their own satellites. Okay? Right now, the, I believe the new space ecosystem really matured, or the small site ecosystem really matured in such way that there is a value chain. So you can actually take advantage of the competition. Okay. And you can choose whatever suits you better.
And it’s also a push for providers like us to actually always thrive, to provide the best service. So it is definitely, it’s definitely a big step that we have seen in the last five years, I believe more that, there’s also less satellite operators that actually that they have in mind, that of building their own property network. Okay. They don’t even have in mind. They just say, okay, I will get it. There is a commodity. There is also the opposite case where people thinks that there it is, everything is already ready and they can just plug in from one hour to the next one.
It’s not like that unfortunately, especially for licensing. Planning is crucial, but it’s definitely much better than what was back in the days.
Hywel: Excellent. And you mentioned the demand side of it coming from the industry and some of the satellite manufacturers you mentioned there.
Now we’ve seen that sort of the satellite industry is created business opportunities in the NGSO market, the non-geostationary orbits market. What are your thoughts on kind of reducing the investment costs for LEO and MEO, the low earth orbit, middle earth orbit ground stations.
Giovanni: Yeah! It’s definitely part of this business model in general. In fact, you don’t actually if you look at the, at space ecosystem in general, probably you don’t actually reduce the overall investment in the ground segment, but you just divide the single investment of each company to that particular segment.
And this is true up to a certain point. One of the things that we try to do with our software in infrastructure is really to optimize in such a way the network activity such that we can increase what we call the separation of each antenna. So how many contacts per day we can have those antennas because they higher the number of contacts the lower… so the higher the number of contacts, we can actually spread the cost, the fixed cost that we have over. And so the actual lower price for the customer we can have. So I believe the investment for now, it’s basically the same, but what is actually allocated to a single entity, to a single customer is much less.
And what we also try to do and is in general, the business model is. Move between a CapEx centric model to an OPEX centric model. And you know when you have a startup, when you run a new company, you want to have, especially in a financial market that goes like that, you always need to think about how to optimize your cost and of CapEx is CapEx. So once you buy it, you have it. And unless you have another financial route, you cannot change it or you cannot improve it. Opex, it is bad for us, let’s say, but you can switch it on and switch it off if you need it. Also on that side, we try not to tie our customers to specific long-term commitments and so on. We try to tie the customer to us because we have a reliable service and they are thriving in the business, and so they can buy more capacity for us. So let’s also believe, let’s say some. It’s risk management, okay?
We take some risk on our side, but to make it simple for our customers to thrive and so that we have a medium long term return on that. And I believe this kind of thing is right now is definitely, let’s say limited to LEO and MEO and non-GSO in general, but I’m starting to see more of this approach also to higher orbits, bigger satellites and so on. Now, one of the example that we have is that up to last year we were really focused on small satellite, let’s say so up to 400-500 kilograms that were our core thing, and now we are supporting satellites for more than one pound.
So why? Because actually the requirements in some cases from, for the network doesn’t change with mass. Okay? It doesn’t change. If you have a reliable service that is good for what the customer needs. Doesn’t matter if it’s small, doesn’t matter if it’s big, it doesn’t matter if it’s in LEO, doesn’t matter if it’s in a geo transfer and so on.
I believe, there is also a process that is is starting to show off That is basically, I don’t need a network that is specifically designed to the requirements that they have by design the mission to be in line to the network that already exists in not in such order to actually reduce the investment on the space segment.
That’s a new process. Of course, it will take some more time to actually evolve and to, but this is also, I believe is work for our for us and our, and also our competitors too. You know. Communicate much better what we have already, what is actually operating so that the customer can say, look, I spent this. If I take this service and I spend that, if I need to build or I need the provider to build a new network for us, that’s also new, a new thing that we see.
Hywel: Excellent. Yes. So as you mentioned this, those market forces coming into play in Yeah. Both ways, really. The supply forces or, encourages you and other operators to innovate and to provide a great service.
But also this is available to the, for the demand. What can you do with it?
Giovanni: And the nice thing is really that since customers are not and , let’s say spending time, but because they do, they spend time but not excessively spending time on the ground. They can really concentrate on their business.
And I believe that the, for example, the demand that we’re seeing right now in terms of capacity, so traffic, our network it’s also limited to the market that our customer, that our customers have. If you think for example, of earth observation the, there is no mass market right now. Okay.
It’s just government mostly government and some specific applications like insurance and so on. That already makes sense. But there is no a mass market. So if we make it simple for our customers to scale their business as they need, and so they can focus on their business, then their demand will of course it’s medium term, long term, but for us, also when you look at the numbers on the market trends, you say, yes, it’s growing it’s fine, but it doesn’t get the actual potential of eo, for example, that Skyrocket as the consumer market actually buy images, for example, buy analytics and on the same case, like it’s the direct to buyers market, you know that you are open a big chunk of market that you cannot see right now in space.
One thing is good projections or revenue growth. One thing is thinking on every vertical that can actually open up as soon as the business models for our customers actually proven and made reliable. There’s a lot of things going on, I believe.
Hywel: Yeah. Excellent. Actually that leads into our next question, the scalability aspect of the service provided.
I wonder if you could explain the network cloud engine . Because I understand this is how well part of what helps or enables customers to scale, particularly in new space missions or extending new space missions into a service based in LEO whatever it is.
Giovanni: Yeah. Absolutely. So basically the network cloud engine is what makes our network not down. It gives a little bit of intelligence to the network. So it’s basically it’s a set of microservices running in, in the cloud that we use to orchestrate the entire network and the entire activity and provide specific interfaces to our customer. And on the interface specifically, the thing is, customer has one interface. Doesn’t matter how many stations we have on the other side, they just connect to that. So the, let’s say the work of the customers is definitely not leaning with the number of stations that they get access to. So it’s one time, that’s it. Then it’s our, it’s on our side to actually grow the network to keep the demand.
And the other thing is really related to what we discussed before about separation. We need a way to, to be sure that we are running the network in the most efficient way. That’s why. We schedule the entire activity of the network based on customer constraints. So we don’t have customers directly booking on the capacity of the network, but we take constraints like how many passwords per day they want to have their latency requirements, the certain constraint on the link budget that they need to have. And then we optimize it in such a way we can actually run our network at really much higher capacity. Right now we are running the network at around a little bit more than 10,000 passes per month.
So it’s around 340, 350 passes per day on more than 70. I believe now 80 satellites that we’re doing, and we can see already that the separation of the network is starting to grow. Right now, the average separation is around 23%. So we still have 67% of overall capacity that we can locate.
But we have already some stations that were in a really higher separation, like around 60, 65%. There are location of course that works better where we have more customers and so on. So of course that, but the thing is that it is not really left to the bunch of customers to actually up that separation it’s on the network engine to do that.
And also it’s not really. Not even the network of engine is linear, scaled, so linearly with a number of stations. That’s because the architecture of the entire network and the console operation was built to have scalability mind in both sense on our side, more station, more customers, less work to activate new customers or to manage new customers.
And also on customer side, it’s one interface. One set of APIs, of course, we always improve. So there is always some more let’s say some integration work that a customer needs to do if we have a new feature. But that depends on them. So if they want that new feature, they develop the software to have that.
And we have testing environment and so on. Otherwise, they don’t. Yeah, that’s it.
Hywel: Okay. Okay. Brilliant. Thanks for explaining that. It makes a lot of sense and as you said earlier, that the making the experience of that layer of abstraction as pleasant as possible for your users is very important.
Giovanni: It’s all on the customer experience side at the end. The easier it is, the more customers will choose us because it’s easier. And the customer experience, of course, involve the technical side and operations, but it also involves how the pricing is standardized, how the contracts are standardized.
We try to standardize as much as possible, even though we have customers of really different sizes from institutional to commercial or whatever, but we really try to standardize everything. So that at the end it’s really simple for the customer to choose. It is not endless conversation on which price this past will have if I do over a location or if we do over another location, so on.
So it’s really to have the customer experience in buying to try to simplify everything. Of course, there are a lot of things that we need to improve this in general, at least the way started to.
Hywel: Excellent. Following on from that, I think having access to the most advanced ground station, resources that you can for any space mission is obviously gonna provide you with an edge. And you’ve described some of the reasons why regardless of you know, who the provider is, but also it requires time, timely maintenance on, on the part of the ground station. managers. Could you give us a bit of an outlook or maybe example on how the opex can be managed using the ground segment as a service model?
Giovanni: Yeah, it’s really simple based on how we start to it. So for us it is price permitted. That’s it. Depending on the customer, how many satellites they have and so on they do a certain traffic, a certain per day on our network. The OPEX is simple, is X Europe per minute times the number of minutes to use in that specifically.
Instead of having your P and L in the course, 20 lines of different different costs the renting, hosting, hardware, internet connection, maintenance, whatever. For each location, we just have one number and that’s it. Of course, we have also volume discount on the price per minute, so the more traffic is really like internet, the more traffic you do, the lower per minute you pay.
Even the, just the model is the model, is simple because especially when you, maybe on a, when you are on a company that is preoperative stage, you need to build up your business plan. You need to build up your budget. You can take that number. And that’s it. You put it in your budget.
It’s easy, it’s scalable. You don’t need to wait till six months to have a pricing or, and then spend another six months to find out how to optimize that pricing. It’s easy, you put that, you think if it’s good for you, it makes sense for your budget, and then it goes easily like that.
Hywel: Great! Makes sense. Yeah, that was I think covered most of the points I wanted to ask. I just as a final question, I wondered how you saw the adaptability of the space industry with regards to ground segment as a service model. We discussed there’s an impact both ways where the requirements in the industry are affecting why you are developing and how you are changing things, but also the data and the service that you can provide is also, you’ll see in emerging signs that’s changing the mission design. So wonder if you could discuss that a little bit about that in a bit more detail. And also just give us an overview if you are happy to have Leaf Space’s plans and your if they are plans to expand, across the globe and open up new areas or what the, what you’re looking forward to with the development of.
Giovanni: On the first question. So definitely we are seeing much more adaptability from the market on the cancer segment as a service model. But just because it’s more known now as a thing. And and I believe also it, it’s really related to the nature of the customer, and I can make you an example, right?
I know because of this scheduling that we do so that we have the control on the schedule of the network. This was not a concept actually aligned with the general market before, so few years ago. So what we. I will not say maybe the side. I believe we get to that, but we got to that, but not actually the side. But we got to, that was willing to start with specific customer that they were not already operational and grow with them with this model. And at the end of the day they saw the actual advantage of that and they stayed with us also because of this capability. And step by step, we also pushed other, Maybe o other operators maybe that were always, that always have operated with the booking strategy to us to move to this.
Of course by improving how we do the schedule, by improving the number of constraints how we communicate the schedule with our customers and so on. But I believe we had the right customers to start on that were, flexible enough. To actually grow with us so that right now we can push that in the, in the general market.
And of course, there’s adaptability for the market. To us, there is of course a need for us to be a, to adapt with respect to the market, and this is why we always improve the scheduling and the NCS and cloud engine and so on to, to try understand better the business case and use case, constant operations of our customers and to put all them together with an ever-evolving product.
So to try to be, to adapt on that. But we still got response on that for the market and that’s why our work capacity is continuing to grow. And that’s why get into your second question. We need to increase both coverage and capacity. Over our network. As was saying before, we already have some locations where we are not at peak levels in specific hours.
This due to the, let’s say, the SpaceX monopoly on the ride share launches, that goes every time on same orbit. Same. So we have a bunch of capacity over specific algorithm. We can put any more contacts over certain location. And that’s why we are doubling up the capacity on certain locations. Doubling up capacity means easily doubling up the number of tenants per and then of course over specific regional of interest or close to specific regional interest.
The Ukraine invasion of course played a, a pretty big role in the. Let’s say an increase of demand from earth observation operators over specific regions, because of course, the low latency needed to downlink that data. And, with, and with these, there are also, and other examples where it’s not just more capacities near them, among less low latency is also needed and we’re working to expand the network this year and especially the first part of next. To allow that. And also we’re looking to install, maybe we, it’s not public yet but we give definitely much more details in the coming weeks of expanding the network is to higher frequencies.
So right now, the main part of network support, snx band and band activity. We are looking also to k band because we have few customers that are already operating with that and want to expand their coverage. So it’s, it’s always moving. And also, this is a kind of example of how care segment as a service provider can actually be much more flexible than a property network.
Because if we have two free customers requesting ka, we can make the investment to say to for installing those K band capable ground stations. And we sub and we divide the investment over these three customers. Otherwise, if you are just one, you need to build everything by yourself. And and it seems, also with some operators like the first ones, like the ones that have their own array network.
For certain change in technology, they can actually use cancer medical service provider as a buffer. In the meantime that you build up your network because maybe you have a so big constellation that makes sense economically to have a fully integrated, dedicated network. But still you have, you need buffer, especially when you new satellites and so on.
No, there is a bunch of stuff I was saying going on at Leaf. The, we have seen a good growth as we was saying. So last year, we grew in a revenue, I believe around 2.5 times. We expected a year before, and this year is going definitely good on the. So I can give you the numbers because we’re close to the end of March, but basically the numbers of the first quarter are identical to the numbers where it’s a little bit more than the numbers of the first half of last year.
So it’s a growing capacity, we just made the launch vehicles to actually launch in time and satellites to, to work, but after that, we’re good to, grow with that. Yeah, I think.
Hywel: Yeah, I think a lot of people would like those two things as well. So that’s fantastic. Gni, thank you very much for sharing all that. Very open of you to share the plans for LEAF and the things you’re excited about the company’s doing.
So it’s a great place. Wrap up our conversation. Yeah. Really appreciate the insights you’ve given us into the ground segment as a service business model and the drivers behind it and how you see the industry changing and evolving. And I think it’ll be really interesting for all our listeners out there to learn more about this topic.
So thank you.
Giovanni: Yeah. Thanks to you and thanks for us. To meet, as it is always good for me, but in general, to push more and to make some outreach about the ground segment. We’ll see for the future.
Hywel: I think you’re, yeah, you’re working to change that, so that’s great. Exactly. Brilliant. And thank you to all our listeners out there for spending time with us today on the Space Industry Podcast.
As I mentioned, you’ve been listening to Giovanni Pandol from Leaf Space, and we will share some links to Leaf Space company and if you would like to get in touch to discuss more of these topics or find out whether this sort of service could suit your missions to your services or the plans you may have in the future, the company will be more than happy to speak with you and we will share up everything we can there. And obviously if you have any questions on the engineering or procurement side that you might wanna help with, remember SAT Search offers a free service for engineers and for anybody carrying out trade studies or procurement processes in the industry. So we’re more than happy to help you with that.
Would like to thank you again for being here and look out for our next episode of this Space Interview podcast coming soon. Thank you very much everybody.
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