Airbus Defence and Space: Shaping Africa’s Space Landscape Through Collaboration and Innovation

Airbus wins contract from Angola for Earth observation satellite Angeo-1. Source: Airbus

Airbus Defence and Space, a world-leading geo-information services and defence solutions expert, has been on a mission for over 30 years. They aim to deliver insightful and actionable intelligence, enabling their customers and partners to make informed decisions and tackle challenges swiftly, confidently, and definitively. The company assists decision-makers in enhancing security, optimising mission planning, improving operational performance and efficiency, managing resources more effectively, and safeguarding the environment. Airbus prioritises long-term customer relationships, emphasising support services such as the Airbus Space Academy for customer training. 

On the sidelines of the 2024 NewSpace Africa Conference, Space in Africa had the opportunity to interview Mr Laurent Frech, Sales Director at Airbus Defence and Space. The aim was to gain insight into Airbus Defence & Space’s current and future projects in Africa.

Regarding Airbus’ involvement in Africa’s manufacturing sector, could you discuss its historical performance and current presence?

Airbus offers a diverse range of Earth observation and Telecommunications satellites alongside related services to governments and institutions, facilitating comprehensive coverage and enabling vital regional communications services. 

During the 2024 NewSpace Africa Conference in Angola, H.E. Mr Mário Oliveira, the Angolan Minister of Telecommunications, Information Technologies, and Social Communication, announced that Airbus is collaborating with Angola on its upcoming satellite programme, ANGEO-1. This project includes a highly advanced Earth observation satellite and a national space data centre. Through ANGEO-1, Angola aims to provide space imagery and geo-intelligence services to its government departments, state agencies, and private-sector clients.

The ANGEO-1 initiative will support Angola’s existing Earth observation applications, such as Tech Ecologia, by supplying high-quality imagery tailored to the country’s needs. Additionally, it lays the groundwork for addressing various other domains. Angola utilises imagery from Airbus’ satellite constellation to implement these applications effectively.

Angolan Earth Observation Applications. Source: GGPEN

In the past, Airbus supplied Angola with the ANGOSAT-2 telecommunications payload, which led to the development of the “Conecta Angola” initiative, leveraging the capabilities of the ANGOSAT-2 satellite launched in 2022. This initiative brings numerous benefits to Angola, including bridging the digital divide within the country, advancing telemedicine services, and stimulating the creation of new employment opportunities and revenue streams.

Given that ANGOSAT-2 offers coverage across the entire African continent and a substantial portion of Southern Europe in C-band, along with almost complete coverage of the southern region of Africa in Ku-band, these capabilities are accessible throughout Africa.

Conecta Angola initiative. Source: GGPEN

In addition to its involvement with Angola, Airbus has supplied Earth observation and telecommunications satellite systems and services to various other space agencies and African institutions for decades. Furthermore, Airbus Defence and Space maintains a permanent presence on the continent, with offices established in Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa. This strategic positioning ensures proximity to their customers and facilitates efficient service delivery.

Can you provide some insights on ANGEO-1 and its benefits for Angola?

Airbus is proud to support Angola’s forward-looking aspirations in space exploration. As Angola’s strategic partner in space, Airbus is committed to delivering cutting-edge Earth observation satellites that will facilitate social and economic development. These satellites will be pivotal in various strategic endeavours, including urban planning and managing valuable mineral resources.

One such satellite, the Airbus S250 optical satellite named ANGEO-1, draws upon Airbus’ extensive expertise accumulated over more than 50 years in building highly reliable space systems. Upon deployment, ANGEO-1 will emerge as the most advanced satellite in the region, positioning Angola as a prominent player in space technology.

The deployment of ANGEO-1 is poised to catalyse Angola’s progress across numerous sectors, ultimately enhancing the quality of life for Angolan citizens. Sovereign access to satellite imagery will significantly contribute to infrastructure development, natural resource mapping, and maritime surveillance, including fisheries, agriculture, and population tracking. Moreover, it will enable a deeper understanding of climate change, facilitating effective drought monitoring. ANGEO-1 will also bolster Angola’s preparedness for natural disasters, facilitating rapid response efforts in impacted areas. Furthermore, ANGEO-1’s exceptional performance and comprehensive training initiatives will empower Angola to develop and provide services aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for key stakeholders. This marks a significant stride towards Angola’s progress and prosperity in space technology and beyond.

Angolan space solutions aligned with UN’s SDGs. Source: GGPEN

It is worth noting that Airbus is currently developing the CO3D programme for the French Space  Agency. The Airbus-made CO3D constellation, comprising four identical S250 satellites, will deliver high-resolution stereo imagery worldwide daily. The data acquired will feed a cloud-based processing chain operated by Airbus, which integrates CNES’ algorithms to produce a cutting-edge 3D map of the Earth’s landmass. 

Jean-Yves Le Gall, former President of CNES,  declared: “The new generation optical satellite constellation CO3D embodies French ambition and ingenuity and opens a new era for Earth observation. It will allow a higher refresh rate, improved performance and better resilience. This partnership between CNES and Airbus perfectly illustrates French excellence in Earth observation from space.” The Angeo-1 satellite programme benefits from that experience. 

What measurable impacts have Airbus’ initiatives or collaborations had in Africa over the past year? Additionally, could you highlight significant partnerships or endeavours that have been particularly influential?

Over the last 50 years and moving forward, satellites have played a crucial role in assisting scientists and policymakers in monitoring essential aspects of the climate, predicting future changes, and facilitating international efforts to combat climate change. Airbus Defence and Space is committed to providing solutions to contribute to a more sustainable world. One such example is Starling. In collaboration with the Earthworm Foundation, Airbus offers Starling a geospatial solution designed to measure the environmental impact of supply chains, thereby supporting commitments to deforestation-free practices.

Starling. Source: Airbus
Starling’s impact in Côte d’Ivoire

Until recently, the Ivorian government’s forestry agency SODEFOR encountered difficulties monitoring forest areas like Cavally for encroachment. The challenge stemmed from the method of cocoa cultivation, where cocoa-driven deforestation was challenging to detect from aerial perspectives. Farmers typically clear the forest floor to plant cocoa, which initially thrives under the shade of taller trees in the forest canopy. Deforestation becomes evident only when the cocoa crops mature and require more sunlight, leading to the felling of larger trees. By this point, deforestation has already occurred.

Thus, SODEFOR incorporated our innovative deforestation monitoring system (Starling), developed with Earthworm, to address this issue. Leveraging Starling, the Ivorian government swiftly identified newly planted cocoa and prevented deforestation before it took place. Starling’s technology was adapted to detect forest disturbance below the canopy, enabling the identification of cocoa cultivation in the Cavally forest with a remarkable 94% accuracy rate.

Across the 67,500 hectares of the area, nearly 39,000 hectares of forest were preserved. The western and eastern regions were identified as the most densely affected areas by land degradation, primarily due to cocoa plantations. In addition to generating a baseline map of the forest and detecting tree canopy disturbance, Starling’s rapid alert system enabled SODEFOR to take immediate and targeted action, leading to a 60% reduction in deforestation rates between April and July 2018.

While many cocoa farmers do not engage in planting within forest reserves, safeguarding Cote d’Ivoire’s remaining forests necessitates accurate and timely information to combat illegal planting activities. It will be essential to guide future farmers towards establishing cocoa and other crops outside current forest areas while supporting optimising yields without harming the environment. Achieving this delicate balance between forest conservation and cocoa farmers’ livelihoods is feasible. SODEFOR is actively protecting forests, but ensuring widespread adoption of better practices among cocoa farmers will require sustained efforts from various stakeholders, including the Ivorian government and chocolate manufacturers.

Other Airbus services to African customers

Our primary focus has been delivering valuable training programmes to our customers for decades. These programmes aim to empower them to extract actionable insights from the data acquired by the satellites we provide. Doing so enables our customers to make well-informed decisions and respond swiftly, confidently, and decisively to their challenges. These challenges range from effective resource management and environmental protection to enhancing security measures.

Thus, Airbus established the Airbus Space Academy as a renowned global leader in satellite manufacturing. This academy is dedicated to overseeing customer training for our space systems. It caters to individuals at all levels of expertise, from newcomers to seasoned industry professionals. The Airbus Space Academy equips participants with the necessary skills and knowledge through technical and operational training sessions. Additionally, the academy fosters strong relationships with our customers’ teams, ensuring mutual success and satisfaction.

Airbus Space Academy. Source: Airbus

In addition to its initiatives, Airbus has collaborated with the French university ISAE-Supaero to establish a master’s programme focused on space applications. This programme aims to equip students with advanced knowledge and skills in space-related fields. Airbus has welcomed several Angolan and other African engineers into this programme, contributing to developing regional talent and expertise. Furthermore, Airbus goes beyond delivering satellites by providing sovereign satellite systems. The company prioritises building long-term relationships with its customers, emphasising capacity-building programmes. These programmes enable customers to develop their applications and effectively utilise the satellite systems for their specific needs. This approach strengthens customers’ capabilities and fosters sustainable partnerships between Airbus and its clientele.

Could you share more insight and an update on the UNOOSA Bartolomeo initiative programme with African stakeholders and describe its benefits for them?

The Bartolomeo platform, attached to the European Columbus Module of the International Space Station  (ISS), is the station’s newest payload hosting platform.

Bartolomeo platform on the ISS. Source: Airbus

Starting from payload sizes as small as 3U, Airbus hosts payloads on Bartolomeo as an all-in-one mission service: this includes technical support in preparing the payload, launch and installation, operations and data transfer, and an optional return to Earth. 

Airbus services on the Bartolomeo platform on the ISS. Source: Airbus

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and Airbus Defence and Space have selected the winner of their joint opportunity for a free one-year mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The climate mission supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will fly on  Bartolomeo, the Airbus external payload hosting platform. The winning ‘ClimCam’ team comprises specialists from different fields and symbolises the power of international cooperation. It brings together researchers from three institutions: the Egyptian Space Agency, the Kenyan Space Agency, and the Uganda National Space Programme within the Ugandan Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation. The team will jointly develop a remote-sensing camera system to monitor weather, floods, and the impacts of climate change in East Africa. 

UNOOSA’s Bartolomeo selection of the African ClimCam during IAC 2021. Source Airbus

The development of the payload, including its qualification and manufacturing, is under the full responsibility of the African consortium. Airbus brings its extensive expertise and experience in managing payloads, including preparation, installation, and operation on the ISS, by providing essential support to enable the African consortium to ensure flight worthiness. 

It is a unique experience as the requirements for a payload are similar to those for a human flight. Furthermore, the consortium will discover the process for performing a mission on the International Space Station. Once in orbit, the consortium will access the data generated by its payload and can manage it directly through its data centre using the Airbus Cloud. Again, this will be a unique experience. The three African institutions have agreed to an open data policy, sharing information and images acquired from the project to guide climate change mitigation efforts across the region.  In addition to its direct goals, the project will demonstrate space technology developments in  Africa, inspiring African engineers and scientists. 

Can you discuss ongoing efforts or collaborations to enhance space education and awareness in Africa, particularly among youth?

In addition to developing the Airbus Space Academy and co-developing a Master’s degree with a French university, Airbus co-founded the Van Hallen Foundation. The Van Allen Foundation and the Montpellier University Space Centre (CSUM) are developing international partnerships on space capacity-building programmes, particularly with the Republic of Djibouti and  Senegal.  

Mr Laurent Frech, Sales Director at Airbus Defence and Space

In 2020, the Minister of Higher Education and Research of Djibouti selected ten Djiboutian students who obtained Master’s degrees in satellite development, assembly integration and testing (AIT) at the Polytech University of Montpellier. These graduates were hosted by the CSUM, where they participated in developing the Republic of Djibouti’s first two satellites, DJIBOUTI-1A and 1B, using the 1U platform of CSUM. DJIBOUTI-1A was launched on 11 November 2023 and supports data collection from various meteorological stations nationwide operated by the Center for Study and Research of Djibouti  (CERD). DJIBOUTI-1B should be launched in 2024.  

A similar partnership is set with Senegal, which began at the start of the 2021 school year with the arrival of ten Senegalese students at CSUM to develop the GAINDE mission based on the nanosatellite of  CSUM.