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Canon unit propels into space business with microsatellites

Canon Electronics to collect big data from orbit using inexpensive products

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  © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese imaging and optical product maker Canon is awaiting the launch of a rocket from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, southeastern India, scheduled for June 23 that will put microsatellites made by companies around the world into space, including its CE-SAT-I.

The CE-SAT-I was assembled by Canon Electronics, a Canon subsidiary making parts for digital cameras and other electronic products, under the initiative of its president, Hisashi Sakamaki, who is keen to get into the space business. The blastoff will mark the first step toward Sakamaki's ambitious plan to launch 100 microsatellites per year.

The CE-SAT-I will be put into orbit 500km from the ground, where it will conduct tests for two years to verify technologies that will be the foundation of the company's planned space business. The launch of the rocket was initially planned for January but was delayed by the Indian Space Research Organization.

The CE-SAT-I has drawn attention due to the adoption of advanced technologies Canon Electronics has accumulated based on office equipment and cameras, and it is the starting point of the company's two pillars for its space business model, although details are still sketchy. 

As one pillar, Canon Electronics will photograph the surface of the earth via satellite, analyze the pictures and sell them as value-added data to corporate clients. Such data is called remote sensing, and it is seen overseas as a promising business.

Orbital Insight, an American geospatial analytics startup in California, provides remote sensing services. The company analyses photos of oil stockpiling tanks and trends of demand for crude and then sells its findings to investors looking for an additional metric to get a competitive edge. 

Other applications of remote sensing technology include the use of satellite photos to predict which cities are expected to face population surges and to monitor crop yields of agricultural products, said Kozo Abe, head of Canon Electronics Space Technology Laboratory.

Companies appear to be looking for "veins of gold" in big data from space, Abe said.

Canon Electronics aims to begin taking pictures two months after the rocket launch. The company plans to market services to potential clients while conducting operational tests of the satellite. 

Value for cost

A microsatellite is priced at less than 1 billion yen ($9.06 million), compared with tens of billions of yen for large satellites. Companies see business opportunities in creating a network of telecom microsatellites that will give people phone access across the entire planet. 

Sakamaki is serious about his plan to launch 100 satellites and its potential because other companies are already moving ahead with the idea. Space Exploration Technologies, an American company better known as SpaceX, plans to launch 4,000 satellites and start telecom services in around 2020.

When it comes to telecom services, 100 satellites is just the beginning. Because half the world's population has no internet access, there are plans to launch many more than that. As an example, OneWeb, an American communications company partly owned by SoftBank Group, has set up a project that will need 700 satellites. 

Soon the earth will be orbited by constellations of microsatellites performing specific functions appealing to various industries. Even though expensive satellites are highly functional, they are cost prohibitive and their coverage area is limited. 

"Data gathered in space will be yet another tool in a company's arsenal, meaning that the age has come when inexpensive, small satellites play active roles," said Masashi Sato, senior consultant at Nomura Research Institute.

New space age

The other pillar of Canon Electronics' business model is to sell satellites and parts for them.

To that end, Sakamaki sees ample opportunity for new entrants in the space industry because the field is known for having high prices and long delivery times. 

In tandem with increased competition, Canon Electronics will have to cut costs and plans to do so by promoting in-house production. "We want to make everything by ourselves," Sakamaki said, showing his intention to achieve cost reductions even for products that are difficult to procure. 

The first CE-SAT-I to be launched from India has an in-house production ratio of 60% as Canon Electronics produced core parts such as a telescope and magnetic torquer.

In a bid to make the remaining 40% of parts, Canon Electronics has been preparing for internal production of a sun sensor to detect the position of the sun, a star tracker to measure the positions of stars and a geomagnetic sensor in efforts to mount them in the next satellite.

Canon Electronics considers it possible to decrease the cost of building a microsatellite by achieving 100% in-house production and using the Canon group's know-how to streamline operations. 

The company had planned to launch a satellite from India with 100% of the parts made in-house, but decided to delay the goal. The company is first focusing on accelerating its space business and examining whether parts based on its already-existing advanced technologies can operate in orbit as planned. 

Canon Electronics has set up a small antenna with a diameter of 2.4 meters in Gunma Prefecture to receive data from the satellite. The company is thus able to operate the satellite, ground station and image-processing system as a package.

In January, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency attempted to launch a mini rocket from Kagoshima Prefecture, but the launch failed because of the loss of power due to a damaged cable. Parts made by Canon Electronics were used in the control equipment.

The satellite business will thus start at Canon Electronics before the rocket business.

"We want to launch our second satellite," Sakamaki said, with an eye on developing products that can beat the competition from American and European rivals. 


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