The launch was originally scheduled for April 27th. But Rocket Lab did not want to take any risk with its electron rocket, whose first phase was at the heart of everyone’s attention. Finally, it was the night between May 2nd and 3rd here in France that in Mahia, New Zealand, on the other side of the globe, an electron rocket left Earth.
If history will remember that this was the very first flight where the company managed to capture its first rocket stage when it returned to Earth, at the other end of the world, near Rennes, the teams from ‘Unseenlabs did not care about this rocket booster, and they all stared at the top of this electron, which houses 34 payloads.
Among this small constellation of satellites, only one of them belonged to the Unseenlabs. It was the seventh satellite from the Breton company based in Rennes. The latter has for several years developed a constellation and is today one of the largest players in the field of maritime surveillance by radio frequency detection.
But to fully understand how this small business from Rennes can dominate a market that interests armies around the world, you need to take a little trip back in time and go back seven years ago, to 2015.
At that time, three brothers decided to go out into space and build their own company. Pushed by Jonathan Galic, who at the time worked for Airbus in the space division, siblings will embark on the adventure. The idea is to do something completely new: signal intelligence.
Satellites to scan the oceans
Behind this complex and long name actually hides what will make Unseenlab successful. The company is thus able to capture electromagnetic waves, analyze them and map them. The latter come from ships present at sea, and they can thus be better monitored by the company’s satellites.
The company will therefore launch a first satellite in 2019 “to show that technology works”, explains Cannelle Gaucher, communications director for the company. Following an initial launch with Rocket Lab, the company is targeting SpaceX and other players for multiple launches. “We were really trying to go where there is room, the launches are very popular and we wanted a constellation as soon as possible.”
A much more reliable system
Today, with seven satellites in orbit around the Earth, Unseenlabs is able to offer snapshots of an area of the planet each “4 to 8 hours” explains Cannelle Gaucher. Enough to provide very valuable information to the company’s customers, but which is not yet sufficient for the small Rennes team that has big ambitions: “The idea would be to have 25 satellites in orbit by 2025, this would allow us to have almost real-time rendering with an image every 10-15 minutes.”
Because this data that Unseenlabs collects is a real goldmine, especially for the authorities. “Today we work a lot with the states, especially the French navy to monitor the EEZ and identify which ship is there”. An important mission that should be fulfilled, on paper, by a lighthouse called AIS, which is present on all ships.
“The problem is that this lighthouse, all ships can cut it whenever they want, or change it to pretend to be another. This makes tracking almost impossible.”. Far from being an isolated practice, disabling beacons affects hundreds of ships around the world. In certain strategic areas, the estimates are that one in two boats would disable its AIS guy.
Government customers, but not only….
Unseenlabs data therefore greatly help the authorities who fight every day against illegal fishing, or even degassing off the coast, as was the case in Corsica a few months ago. A real tragedy for the marine environment on the Island of Beauty.
But in addition to helping fleets around the world enforce the law, the information collected by Unseenlabs’ satellites finds other customers. “We have insurance companies that are very interested in what we do. They want to make sure that the ship has not made an unforeseen detour, or on the contrary, to bypass risk areas such as the coast of Somalia, where there is a lot of piracy. »
In addition to these purely commercial customers, Unseenlabs collaborates with NGOs so that they can have much more realistic figures on what is happening at sea, thus alerting the authorities with reliable and much more meaningful data than AIS beacons, which often minimize the problem.
For example, protected sea areas where fishing is prohibited are never crossed by a trawler, at least according to AIS beacon numbers, yet the reality is very different and Unseenlabs data show it. “with a reliability of more than 95%”.
Monitoring the oceans without polluting space
If Unseenlabs works to make the oceans safer and cleaner through the monitoring it does, it will not forget to respect space, the workplace of satellites. From their conception, the company’s satellites are designed to de-orbit when their life in space is over (after 25 years editor’s remark). ‘French space law is very strict on this subject and it obliges us not to go on board polluting materials in the satellites so that the de-orbitation is as clean as possible. »
An issue that is increasingly being taken into account by the various actors in the space world, the one who is aware that in order to continue to use space, it must be preserved. As such, Unseenlab’s satellites are all designed to be desorbed and that the latter do not cause any damage in space but also in the atmosphere when they return.