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A company run by an Estonian e-resident is shaping the future of satellite communication

Telecommunication devices have been around for quite some time now. Having 4G data even in the remotest parts of the Estonian wilderness isn’t anything astonishing. But did you know that in this time of high-speed internet connections, many of the satellites flying over our heads still use age-old radio frequencies to communicate with each other?

Golbriak Space is a small, Tallinn-based aerospace company that is developing a device that fits into a shoebox; satellites that will bring satellite to satellite communication to the 21st century using optical communication solutions. If everything goes according to plan, the first fruits will be picked this summer.

Prime example of e-Residency possibilities

The company, which was founded back in November 2017, is run by an Italian, Simone Briatore (28). Before landing in Tallinn, he studied in China and briefly in Moscow. Tallinn was not on his radar to continue his studies but rather to found an aerospace company. In an interview with Life in Estonia, Briatore says that none of the founding members have any prior connection with Estonia. The company was co-founded by Nicola Garzaniti and their advisor is Alessandro Golkar, previously employed by Airbus.

‘The reason we picked Estonia is for bureaucracy and the friendly space for startups. We considered starting a startup so we wanted a friendly startup ecosystem. We were amazed by Estonia. Business administration is simple here because everybody speaks English,’ says Briatore.

According to the founder, the team, at one point, also considered the Netherlands and United Kingdom but finally decided on Estonia mainly because of the almost non-existent bureaucracy. Briatore is one of over 52 000 e-residents that Estonia has, giving him almost full access to the same e-services any native Estonian can use. Although he is a citizen of the European Union, he still benefits extra from e-Residency. The main advantages are the ability to found and run a company online, sign legally binding documents electronically and file taxes online in just a few minutes.

Although Briatore was an e-resident while starting the company he still retained the mentality from back home and decided to start the company in the traditional way – by visiting a notary. Now, having used e-Residency he is certain that if there is a need to start another company he will do it online.

Optical communication is the future for satellite to satellite communication

Golbriak Space’s mission is to develop a license-free optical communication solution for satellites to communicate with each other at high speeds. At first they are focusing on nano- and microsatellites in low earth orbit. Aerospace company SpaceWorks predicts there will be around 294 nano- or microsatellites launched into space this year.

Right now, satellites use traditional radio frequency (RF) based communication solutions. The disadvantages for RF are spectrum licenses, low speed and interferences. For example, getting a license can take 2 to 4 years. Even if you are granted a license there is still a big possibility that the data packets you are transmitting will get scrambled due to the large number of devices using RF.

With a license-free solution there is no waiting time to receive a license so companies building satellites can get their technology up in space much faster. Optical communication uses lasers that can transmit data 100Mbps to 1Gbps, which is considerably faster than RF. The solution that Golbriak Space is developing has been successfully tested in the stratosphere.

According to Briatore, there are no other privately run companies in the world developing the same solution they are working on. He points out that it is possible that a military solution has already been worked out and deployed, but as military projects are mostly top secret he doesn’t know if it exists.

The only example of optical communication being used in space that he knows of is on the Sentinel satellites. However, they don’t use it for satellite to satellite communication but rather to send data up to geostationary orbit and then use RF to receive the data on Earth. The estimated cost for the terminal used on Sentinel is around 24 million euros and the size is comparable to a washing machine. After industrialisation, Briatore aims for their solution to cost around 100-150 000 euros and the device measures only 10x10x15cm in size.

ESA awarded a free launch into space for the device

Around the same time when the company was founded, the team took part in an accelerator by the European Space Agency (ESA) and they were the 2017 Copernicus Masters Overall Winner. Although they were granted some prize money for first place, the most valuable award was a free launch into space for the device. The device will be flown up in summer 2019 with the same rocket that will launch the TTÜ100 satellite from the European Space Port in French Guiana. Golbriak Space was also one of the very first startups accepted to the ESA Business Incubation Centre (BIC) Estonia.

With the work done so far, Golbriak Space has stepped into negotiations with three commercial projects with a total projected value of 35 million euros. The only name they can publicly site is Airbus, which is looking for a solution to launch cloud computing on the International Space Station. The other two possible clients are staying anonymous at the moment.

Assuming that the launch goes well, the projection is to build 20 to 100 devices per year. For that to happen they need to raise money from investors. Preliminary talks are going on at the moment but agreements have yet to be signed. The team hopes to use money received from investors to increase the size of the company to about 10 people by this summer. Being based in Tehnopol, a science and business campus located in Tallinn, Briatore sees that there is enough know-how in Estonia to work on the project. The device is built at Tehnopol in Tallinn and tested in Tartu.

Golbriak Space is also preparing for the possibility that the launch does not go well. If something goes wrong with the launch of the rocket they will try to find money to have a second launch as soon as possible. If there is a problem with the device, they will look at what didn’t work and also have a second launch. Briatore states that space is a high-risk business.

Nano- and microsatellites are a growing business

Starting from 2008 aerospace company SpaceWorks has been keeping track of nano- and microsatellites launched. Nanosatellites weigh from 1 to 10 kg and microsatellites can weigh up to 100 kg. Last year there were about 253 satellites launched into space that fit the prior description. For this year, they predict a 17% increase. But the full market potential is just shy of 400 nano- or microsatellites.

Estonia’s ESTCube-2 and TTÜ100 satellites are also going to be launched into space this year. None of them are using the technology developed by Golbriak Space.

Over the next five years the nano- and microsatellite business will see rapid growth. Such satellites could be used for military, commercial or civil purposes. Over 10% of all nano- and microsatellites launched in 2018 were intended for communications purposes. The cheapest ride for a satellite that size is around 33 000 euros per kg. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is planning to launch their own launch rocket, named Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), which will bring the launch price down to around 12 000 euros per kg.

According to the growth estimates, Golbriak Space sees their revenue reaching 70 million euros by 2026. Briatore recommends Estonia for technology-oriented startups and companies. According to him, the assets for startups lie in the community.

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