Bridging the digital divide with OneWeb

Many thought it would happen one day, but no one in the space industry had ever attempted it: provide affordable access to the Internet anywhere, anytime. That is the goal of the joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus, which seeks to place a constellation of more than 900 satellites in space in less than two years, turning the Earth into a planet-sized Internet network.

Shouldn't everyone have access to the world's information? Creating OneWeb’s new global knowledge infrastructure is a feat that will only be possible with an entirely new approach to satellite design and manufacturing. Simplification, cost reduction and quality control are some of the challenges the project faces two years after kick-off.

OneWeb Satellites inaugurates its assembly line in Toulouse

Mid 2017, production of the first units will start at Airbus’ facilities in Toulouse, where theinitial assembly line is based and was inaugurated on 27 June, 2017. It will produce the first 12 identical prototype satellites, 10 of which will be launched in early 2018 from Kourou, French Guiana, for validation.

If all goes well they will become the first operating satellites of the network, which will include at its start 648 simultaneously operating satellites in orbit just two years later. A total of 900 units will be produced to increase capacity and maintain full in-service availability, replacing satellites that reach end of life.

$1.2 billion: is the capital funding for OneWeb’s revolutionary technological development. OneWeb Satellites is a joint Venture between Airbus and OneWeb

A new way of producing satellites

“This will be the first time we will have worldwide Internet coverage, covering any piece of land or sea. Imagine the many business opportunities people will be able to create with this network,” says Eric de Saintignon, Chief Operating Officer at OneWeb Satellites. After the first launch in 2018, the company plans to put in orbit more than 30 satellites a month until it completes the constellation, which will be distributed along 18 different planes of circumpolar orbits. Service will start in 2019.

The project entails an entirely new way of producing communication satellites, from design to assembly and launch. “We are facing a complete new paradigm: normally there are 15 satellites produced a year, but we will produce two a day,” says de Saintignon. Compared to standard communication satellites, the new OneWeb spacecraft are cost disruptive, says de Saintignon.

OneWeb Satellites, the joint venture 50/50 Airbus and OneWeb is taking care of design and manufacturing of the first units, while full-blown production will be done at the new OneWeb Satellites factory in Florida. Producing 900 identical satellites has its challenges, like minimising the part types to simplify and reduce costs. This has been done in part by applying processes and standards from Airbus’ serial aircraft production, as well as utilising standards and electronics from defence aeronautics and automotive industry.

The current OneWeb Satellites team involves 110 people, which will be scaled up to reach 300. The project’s factory, with two identical assembly lines, will be based at Florida’s Exploration Park, not far from where Apollo 11 was launched almost 50 years ago, the first crewed mission to land on the Moon. Construction of the $85 million facility has already started and is due to be completed at the end of 2017.

Digital factory of the future

Production combines a delicate mix of expert human work and robotic processes. While 80% of the actual assembly is performed by people, nearly all tests are automated, including using geo-localised tools for screwing and augmented reality.

There are ‘cobots’, too – collaborative robots that will help workers with heavy lifting or critical positioning  tasks. “The automation is not primarily to reduce costs, but to insure repeatability and make life more simple and more rapid”, says de Saintignon, who stresses the benefits of this new way of doing things. It provides a competitive advantage over standard satellite production, for example, because there is has been constant open contact and feedback with producers and customers, enabling to be optimised to efficiently meet customer needs. “This has helped to sign contracts for almost 100% of the volume of the project.”

With a background in theoretical physics and optics, and years of serving in satellite integration and other tasks at Airbus, de Saintignon admits his new task is “completely unusual, a complete revolution in terms of the application potential”.

Connecting schools across the world

One of OneWeb’s main goals is to connect vast areas of land in less-developed countries with no connection to the Internet. For de Saintignon, there is no question that this will bring important improvements to the quality of life.

“Education in rural areas can gain a lot by connecting all schools, for example in Africa, facilitating a shift from outdated textbooks to the many learning possibilities available online. Healthcare is another instance, with the Internet enabling doctors to provide tele-assistance in remote areas.

Over 50% of the world, including rural America, Europe and Asia, remain without reliable high-speed connectivity

In other, better-connected areas, there are also many services to be improved. OneWeb could provide Internet access to spacecraft, trains and any type of land transportation vehicles. “Think of it as being like the first railroads a century ago, which connected coasts and isolated mountain areas,” says de Saintignon.

The new era of the Internet of Things, which in a few years will connect an incredible 20 billion devices worldwide, opens a vast new territory for the Planet Wide Web.

Nuño Domínguez