Interview with the Chief Innovation Officer of TELNET Group, Dr Anis Youssef

Dr Anis Youssef, TELNET's Chief Innovation Officer

TELNET is the leading Tunisian engineering and technology consulting company. The company has several subsidiaries in France and several other countries and operates in many countries in North Africa and the Middle East. TELNET designed and launched Tunisia’s first satellite, ChallengeOne. In addition, the company also announced that ChallengeOne is a test flight for 30 nanosatellites scheduled to be placed in orbit by 2023. 

Space in Africa had a chat with the Chief Innovation Officer of TELNET Group, Dr Anis Youssef, to learn more about the company’s operations and services. 

What is TELNET known for?

Headquartered in Tunisia, TELNET is an innovative group of companies founded in 1994 operating in the high technology value-added sectors, with about 30 years of experience and more than 1000 engineers. TELNET is the first and currently the only technology company of this size in Tunisia, with several offices in Tunisia and major world countries, including Russia, the USA, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia. In addition, TELNET is certified ISO9001 and has expertise in developing mechanical and electronic products and software for embedded real-time systems in several domains such as telecom, multimedia, energy,  payment solutions, space and drone industry. 

How was ChallengeOne conceived? What solutions do you intend to provide with the satellite??

One of the major specificities of the “NewSpace” is that access to space is becoming more democratised, with commercial companies and research institutions taking charge of satellite development. The ultimate goal is not to develop new technologies for technology’s sake but to decrease the cost of reaching orbit drastically.

TELNET has also registered its interest in satellite development because we believe that Tunisia mustn’t miss this new phase of access to space, as the economic, scientific and technological benefits are endless. To this end, TELNET envisions incorporating IoT solutions on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to reveal the limits of the current communications systems and offer the best alternative.  

Consequently, in 2018, the TELNET group leveraged its expertise in the field of Internet of Things (IoT) and the realisation that the conventional network solutions creates a lot of connectivity gap for Tunisians to launch an ambitious project to design and develop Tunisia’s first satellite, dubbed the “ChallengeOne”. We intended to leverage the satellite to lay the groundwork for utilising space to increase ground terminals connectivity in Tunisia. 

Furthermore, with the ChallengeOne, we hoped to demonstrate the capabilities of leveraging a satellite placed in LEO to capture data from LoRa terminals using the same power as a conventional terrestrial transmission. The idea would be to provide extended coverage of these terminals beyond the limits of the terrestrial network. The ChallengeOne satellite would act as a LoRa gateway placed in orbit in space and, therefore, will be able to receive the data transmitted by ground terminals. In addition, with LoRa, the technology allows an object to exchange low-size and low-speed data, reducing energy consumption and giving it up to 10 years of battery life.

What role is the ChallengeOne satellite playing in Tunisia’s agriculture sector (smart farming)? 

In a first-ever experiment in Africa and the Arab world, a full-scale operation (in-vivo) was held on March 22, 2022, to validate exploiting the ChallengeOne satellite in smart agriculture. The project, a partnership between the TELNET group and the Tunisian Institute of Cultures and Cereals, intends to utilise the ChallengeOne satellite to improve cereals production and management of irrigation processes.

The pilot project involves linking agricultural lands with IoT technologies, by connecting agricultural sensors (humidity, temperature, solar radiation and evaporation) with the ChallengeOne in orbit, during various passages over the concerned geographical area.

As a result of the reception and processing of the captured data, the satellite transmitted the coordinated and programmed instructions to control agricultural equipment on-site and remotely initiate appropriate processes for agricultural land treatment and intelligent irrigation on the farm. To implement this project, TELNET’s engineers developed, validated, loaded and activated the new agricultural software on the ChallengeOne. In addition, they designed a specific onsite architecture, made up of several sensors, actuators and concentrators, to guarantee the autonomy of the connectivity of the targeted area. 

To highlight the exploitation, TELNET developed a smart application for Tunisian farmers to allow them, through space-based technology, to connect their sensors and control their agricultural treatment devices and irrigation equipment.

TELNET announced that ChallengeOne is a precursor mission for a satellite constellation of 30 nanosatellites. What specific solutions will the satellite provide?

The successful launch and operationalisation of ChallengeOne have laid the foundation for a new phase of operation based on a PanAfrican satellite project – “The manufacture and launch of a constellation of 30 equivalent nanosatellites, shared between several African countries”.  

The 30 nanosatellites will be placed in strategic orbital positions to ensure a comprehensive connectivity rate imposed by the global IoT market with a revisit time of about 10 minutes. This PanAfrican nanosatellites constellation project will enhance the NewSpace ecosystem in Africa and improve Africa’s access to space through several continental and intercontinental capacity development initiatives.

The satellite project dubbed the “African Access to Space (AAS)” will promote the development of innovative technologies in IoT applications to solve socio-economic challenges on the continent. 

Can you talk about your partners on this project? What source of funding is available to you?

Telnet has partnered with a host of companies both on and outside the continent to ensure that the project is executed smoothly.

For example, in 2017, on the sidelines of the state visit of the French President, Mr Emmanuel Macron, for the Tunisia-France economic forum, a cooperation agreement was signed between Aerospace Valley Toulouse [the first European Space Innovation centre] and TELNET Holding. This cooperation agreement specifies the areas of collaboration, the processes and the plans for developing the Tunisian nanosatellites sector. 

In 2021, the Russian State Space Corporation (ROSCOSMOS) and TELNET Holding discussed the prospects of cooperation in the space field. As a result, they had agreed to collaborate on research and innovation projects related to space technologies – satellites and payloads manufacturing, ground station, navigation and  Earth observation.  

Similarly, in 2021, a signing ceremony took place at the headquarters of the Tunisian Ministry of  Economy, Finance and Investment Support, between the President of HEMERIA and the General  Manager of TELNET, on the sidelines of the visit of French Prime Minister Jean Castex to Tunis. The ceremony was to seal an official agreement between both parties to develop and operate constellations focused on improving Earth Observation and connectivity for African and Arab countries. 

In July 2021, a partnership agreement was signed between TELNET Holding and Thales Alenia Space [one of the world leaders in satellite manufacturing]. The deal was to design ways to collaborate on satellite manufacturing and the installation of space facilities [laboratories] in Tunisia. 

Based on those partnerships, the innovative and unifying project “African Access To Space” will promote relations between the African continent and the rest of the world on a premier scientific, technological and socio-economic basis. The involvement and support of international space agencies, related research institutions and global research organisations will be an essential step to actualising the dream of Africa’s access to space as a reality. In addition, TELNET aims to use the premise of the ChallengeOne and the nanosatellite project as a gateway for a mass continental-wide capacity development programme in space technologies development and to enhance Africa’s access to space.

Tell me about the current workforce at TELNET

TELNET space projects require capable staff with the mastery of several multidisciplinary skills, including hardware, software,  mechanics, radiofrequency, data processing, space data science and marketing and pre-sales. Consequently, TELNET’s technical team is composed of about 5O engineers and experts based out of Tunisia, Europe and the USA, working on: 

  • designing and manufacturing cubesats or nano-satellites;
  • cubesat components manufacturing;
  • designing payload;
  • IoT communication and LoRa protocol 
  • ground station and smart terminals. 
What should the industry anticipate from TELNET in 2022?

We have gone through three different phases in our space journey. Space 1.0 (astronomy), Space 2.0 (space race), and space 3.0 is what we have had for the last ten years, based on international cooperation, particularly the International Space Stations (ISS). However, space 4.0 is the reality of today.  

Space 4.0 is now translating strategic cooperation between public and private actors in Tunisia to target end-users and leverage space to provide job creation and economic growth opportunities. One of the paramount significance of space 4.0 is that the Tunisian space ecosystem is beginning to new private entrants [NewSpace companies] leveraging space-based technologies to develop solutions to tackle social, economic and environmental challenges in Tunisia. In this context, TELNET believes that it is vital for Africa not to miss this new phase of access to space, as the economic, scientific and technological benefits are significant. 

In conclusion, TELNET hopes to champion the development of the next generation of cubesats focusing on micro-propulsions, EO and 5G IoT payloads as complimentary space to earth solutions. In conclusion, TELNET’s mantra for the coming years is “Space is closer than you think” and “Space is Connecting Things”.