x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Dubai shoots for the stars with aim to become satellite hub

EIAST is currently working on the KhalifaSat, which will be launched in 2017. It is the first satellite designed and built wholly by Emiratis although some of the processes were carried out in South Korea.

Above, the antenna used to track the satellites at Emirates Institution for Advance Science and Technology (EIAST). EIAST has already launched two satellites, DubaiSat1 and DubaiSat2. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Above, the antenna used to track the satellites at Emirates Institution for Advance Science and Technology (EIAST). EIAST has already launched two satellites, DubaiSat1 and DubaiSat2. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Dubai is aiming to become a hub to build satellites from start to finish within the next decade.

Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), a government-owned entity, is in the process of expanding its facilities to accommodate future manufacturing of satellites. It is building clean rooms and laboratories to test electronic equipment and temperature. Construction of the lab is set to be completed by the end of this year.

EIAST is currently working on the KhalifaSat, which will be launched in 2017. It is the first satellite designed and built wholly by Emiratis although some of the processes were carried out in South Korea.

“Our main mandate is to build a science and technology industry in Dubai,” said Omran Sharaf, the director at EIAST, on the sidelines of the World Space Risk Forum in Dubai. “The government has been investing in developing these skills and capacity among local Emirati engineers. We have to demonstrate that we are capable and once that is done we can leverage these capabilities and deliver high-quality products and work with the private sector.”

EIAST has already launched two satellites, DubaiSat1 and DubaiSat2, both of which were built with the help of Satrec Initiative, its partner in South Korea. While EIAST’s satellites are observational, produced with the aim of helping the Government and its entities map the country and its changes, the UAE’s two other satellite companies, YahSat, which is owned by Mubadala, and Thuraya are commercial players specialising in the telecoms sector.

If Dubai begins to manufacture satellites, it will compete with Europe, the US, Russia and Japan and Korea. Given its proximity to Africa, where most of the growth is set to derive, it has a chance to become a serious player, say industry sources.

“From an economic standpoint, it doesn’t make a lot of sense in the short term, but Sheikh Mohammed has a mission,” said Laurent Lemaire, the chief executive at Elseco, a Dubai-based satellite insurance company. “When the oil is gone, the country will have to rely on other things – transport, tourism, hi-technologies. So his goal is not to make money out of it, but to have the capability, to have the technology because you can reuse the technology elsewhere.”

The patents and technology know-how will be more valuable than the potential revenues for the country’s economy. If EIAST decides to commercialise its satellites, it could provide spectrum and satellite services to the airline companies, an area currently dominated by Inmarsat and Iridium.

“Considering that consumption of satellite service by commercial aviation is largely limited to two international players at present, these initiatives will bring down costs and intensify competition,” said an analyst from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

“[We] find that several countries globally are launching their own satellites to meet communication and navigation needs. While largely spectrum from national satellites is used for public services such as government, military, national television and the like.”

Mr Lemaire said the satellite industry is going the way of the aviation industry whereby the dominance of the US and European carriers has been eroded by players in the Middle East and Asia, providing big opportunities for the region.

“There is [Saudi Arabia’s] Arabsat, YahSat and [Qatar’s] SL Sat, these three have cash and will buy more and more satellites. The region can become a hub for the satellite business,” he said.

thamid@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter @Ind_Insights