Interviews KEC 25 years
INTERVIEW KEC 25 YEARS – BOB MEURER
Introduction: Interview with KEC clients and partners about projects of the past. Looking back on the project and forward; description of the project, uniqueness, results, innovative character, what did we learn, are the results and lessons learned still relevant.
Interviewee Robert Meurer; former U.S. Navy Commander, and Director at Orbital Sciences, AeroAstro, Swales Aerospace, ATK, Orbital/ATK and Smallsat pioneer.
Project: Ground segment for AeroAstro/ElOp commercial smallsat Earth observation missions.
Topic: Smallsat business and technology adoption
KEC Project: Ground segment for AeroAstro/ElOp commercial “Smallsat” Earth observation missions.
Background: In 2003 KEC was selected by AeroAstro as ground segment partner for its commercial smallsat Earth observation mission offerings. AeroAstro as prime contractor provided the launch vehicle and space bus, and ElOp the Earth Observation cameras. Bob Meurer was responsible for business deployment worldwide. KEC was selected as supplier of the ground segment for satellite telemetry and Earth observation data processing. AeroAstro/ElOp/KEC teamed up for various international opportunities to demonstrate the potential of Earth Observation missions at around one tenth of the price of conventional solutions at that time.
This article is based on an interview with Bob Meurer in March 2020. The conclusion is that this smallsat team was a decade ahead of the market and was truly pioneering. Bob was initially involved in smallsats in the eighties and concludes technology was never the limiting factor, but that people were mentally restricted in adopting the full potential of smallsats. Nowadays smallsats have become a core part of the mainstream space market.
Bob’s experience and recommendations are still valid today. In the article KEC’s editor will connect these with some of its current projects and activities.
Bob’s first steps in the smallsat world
Bob was an aviator and anti-submarine warfare specialist in the US Navy, and who for a period of nearly three years, served as an exchange officer in the Netherlands Marine-Luchtvaartdienst (MLD) 321 Squadron flying the Breguet SP-13A ATLANTIC. He earned his master’s degree in Systems Management (MSSM) from the University of Southern California and specialized in R&D management. In the Navy he was assigned to the Office of Naval Research as a Program Manager dealing with a variety of advanced aviation and aerospace technologies, later incorporating space technology.
One of the projects Bob ran was the GLOMR (Global Low Orbit Message Relay) satellite program, which was in fact a demonstration flight to show that we can place a satellite in orbit for less than $1mjn providing tactical functions. This was a modest objective, but everything in space was considered strategic at that time and the potential of smallsats was certainly not embraced yet.
GLOMR was addressing the communication needs of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The technology was simple: a Tandy Corporation TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer (laptop device) coupled with an amateur radio to communicate with and capture data from the satellite. The satellite was put in orbit successfully for 14 months and proved to be a reliable data relay capability in space.
As a result, a couple more satellites were built supporting the armed forces in Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations particularly supporting the U.S. Marine Corps.
Bob appreciated the success of these smallsat missions and their rapid deployment possibilities. He started brainstorming with industry and a few like-minded individuals within the U.S. military services that like Bob, had the flexibility to try things out. With these people he discussed and brainstormed about various applications like tactical communications, remote sensing, weather and some more strategic applications.
From there Bob started developing various mission concepts. The Naval Research Lab took note of Bob’s efforts and brought him on-board as the first Military Deputy for Space Programs providing him with more resources and from there the smallsat adventures really took off.
Bob’s current activities on smallsats
With GLOMR as the initial bookend of his space career, toward the end of his career Bob’s other bookend involved on-orbit lifetime extension of satellites. At Orbital/ATK Bob had a very favorable management team supporting his smallsat endeavors. With his international contacts in 2008/2009 Bob began to explore the limiting factors of large GEO spacecraft and concluded the main limiting factor was fuel. The transmission and reception functionalities were typically still OK, but these satellites simply ran out of fuel to maintain themselves within their assigned orbital slot.
Working with other innovators with interests in this challenge, Bob led and contributed to the early studies of on-orbit servicing concepts that resulted in the recent success as Space Logistics LLC/Northrop Grumman’s first Mission Extension Vehicle-1(MEV-1); a small GEO-sat that takes over the AOCS and station-keeping functions of a traditional GEOsat, whilst the rest of the mission can be continued by the mother satellite. MEV-1 was launched one month ago and successfully docked with an Intelsat satellite within a few weeks.
Again, the technology is quite straightforward, but the complexity, like for many other missions, was on the business side.
Asset life time extension
It is interesting to see the link between Bob’s work in space and what has become an international topic in most western countries: ageing assets. Various production plants, process industry plants, civil infrastructure, etc. are typically over fifty years old. As a consultant for the maintenance sector KEC designed the Masterplan for the independent World Class Maintenance Foundation currently supporting various ‘smart maintenance’ innovations contributing to ways to safely extent the lifetime of vital assets. Paul van Kempen, managing director of KEC, is currently responsible for the operational open innovation projects of WCM.
Bob’s cooperation with KEC
As always, in 2002 Bob was scanning the US, Asia, Middle East and Europe for customers and innovative partners. Bob was and is convinced that successful missions are achieved by innovators with similar ideas and mindset that can create synergy to make 2+2=5.
Meanwhile remote sensing became Bob’s passion and again he saw no fundamental limiting technology factors for taking that market into the smallsat environment.
Today many companies have stepped in this market, with companies like RapidEye, OHB, Surrey, Planet, Skybox Imaging, HiSpecIQ, etc.; a list that is more or less endless.
In 2003 Bob was devoted to the pursuit of the smallsat market and tried to integrate various small technology elements into a complete mission. Bob’s past experience in the Netherlands led him the Dutch team of KEC who had demonstrated an ability to provide compact, high-performance ground segments with the technology core provided by the Netherlands Aerospace Center NLR (ed. a valued partner of KEC for a long time). Moreover, the team was particularly strong in systems engineering, value added downstream services and training.
In that sense, KEC was synonymous to AeroAstro covering the satellite bus and launch and ElOp that provided unique high capabilities cameras. All team members had the same approach, flexibility and innovative mindset, resulting in very competitive yet capable systems.
Nevertheless, it took over 8 years for the rest of the industry and end users to truly adopt the full potential of smallsats, transferring it into mainstream today.
Nowadays also The Netherlands has become more and more interested and involved in smallsats (incl. MoD) resulting in smallsat capabilities as spinoff from Delft University of Technology and ESTEC.
The next 5 years we will see hyperspectral and SAR instruments on smallsats. All arguments that these technologies are not packageable on a smallsats are now disproven. So, these missions are coming, and this time, market driven instead of technology pushed.
We don’t have to wait for another 10 years again. There is strong interest from Asia in SAR smallsat missions related to various applications like controlling fishing rights, agriculture, etc.
Bob has been involved in the Annual USU/AIAA Small Satellite Conference in Utah from its first year and shared many of his lessons learned during the conference venues. He was a key speaker at the first edition, presenting together with prof. Bob Twiggs, also a smallsat pioneer. The conference is still a success and Bob served as Technical Chairman for 15 years.
Bob’s main recommendation for everyone working on smallsats or innovative ideas is based on the philosophy “If you don’t find limitations in the physics of your mission, don’t give up on your dream. Also: put effort on the technology side, but even greater emphasis on the business side.”
For satellite servicing, Bob and his collaborators, spent years figuring out the business, pricing and financing models that would work. Therefore, for him technology is a matter of implementation and deployment, but in the end the business side is more complex.
Acknowledgment by Paul van Kempen (Founder and Managing Director KEC)
Bob, it was a true pleasure working with you during the early days of the smallsat business. We travelled the world together pushing the adoption of these disruptive innovations, which is not only synonymous with smaller satellites but also with a completely different way of working.
It was my pleasure interviewing you so many years later. It was again inspiring and motivates us to keep pushing the boundaries and keep believing in our dreams, which is particularly comforting in these troubled times of the coronavirus.
Servitisation and performance based
Bob’s efforts regarding new business models are still relevant today. In the era of Industry 4.0. new digital business models are being developed, resulting in more service oriented business and payments based on delivered performance. KEC is currently supporting various companies to embrace the opportunities of industry 4.0 and shift towards new business model and contracts.
KEC managed a project on the development of a supplier’s handbook to mature into performance based logistics contracts for maintaining military assets. The handbook is available on https://www.worldclassmaintenance.com/publicaties/boeken/growing-towards-pbl-contracting/. KEC implemented the model described in the handbook for various industries and public organizations like the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.
In order to support the high tech industry with services oriented business KEC developed various deployment models in cooperation with the Brabantse Ontwikkelings Maatschappij and Netherlands Aerospace Centre NLR https://kec.nl/condition-based-maintenance-en-niet-destructief-onderzoek/.