We take a look at the satellite industry: the best routes into this sector, the most sought-after skills and the biggest employers.
The satellite industry is a part of the UK’s thriving space sector. In 2010, the Government and UK space industry launched the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS), which defined a 20-year vision for the UK space and satellite industry to have a ten per cent (£40 billion) share of the global market by 2030. An IGS update published last summer, in conjunction with an independent study by London Economics, reports that the industry is on target to achieve this.
Analysis by London Economics also highlights the vital part satellite services play across many different sectors. Indeed, it points out that it has an “enabling, enhancing or alternative role” in nine elements of UK critical infrastructure: water, communications, emergency services, energy, transport, health, government, food and financial services. Commenting on the analysis, Julian David, CEO of the industry body techUK, says the space sector is an excellent example of what other UK industries should emulate because it demonstrates consistent year-on-year growth and “proactively seeks out a global market”.
According to the US-based Satellite Industry Association (SIA), global satellite industry revenue was $203 billion in 2014. It breaks the industry down into four segments: satellite services; satellite manufacturing; launch industry; and ground equipment. The largest is services, which grew by four per cent in 2014. The launch industry grew by nine per cent, which the SIA says reflected the higher number of European and US launches of commercial satellites.
What’s happening in satellite?
It is potentially one of the most exciting areas for young engineers and technologists, not just because of its link to the space community but because it is truly at the leading edge of technology. According to Jean-Louis Robin, Eutelsat’s chief HR officer, explains that satellite technology constantly reinvents itself.
“As a satellite operator we are at the dawn of a new era in many aspects: all-electric and software-defined satellites should become new standards in our industry,” he says. “And media consumption habits are evolving to such an extent that TV is now all available on-demand, across multiple devices and in increasingly different locations and scenarios, changing the way we serve our customers.”
2016 has already seen some major industry developments, including the launch of the equivalent of optical fibre in space. EDRS-A, the first relay satellite of the SpaceDataHighway, was successfully launched into geostationary orbit in January and entered a test period. The programme is the result of a public-private partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus Defence and Space, the world’s second largest space company. Speaking at the launch, Evert Dudok, head of the communications, intelligence and security business line at Airbus Defence and Space, said that SpaceDataHighway is “no longer science fiction” and that it will revolutionise satellite and drone communications as well as keep the European space industry at the forefront of technology and innovative services.
Meanwhile, Airbus Defence and Space and OneWeb, which are building a new global satellite communications system, announced the creation of OneWeb satellites. The new joint venture will see 900 satellites designed and built for the OneWeb constellation, which will offer high-speed Internet with global coverage. It marks the first ever mass-production of satellites with a prototype line set up in Toulouse to produce the first ten and this will be used to test the industrialisation method for production of the others.
Inmarsat also recently announced the completion of its latest high-speed broadband network, Global Xpress, and three satellites have been successfully launched with a fourth being built. It is also working in partnership with Deutsche Telekom to deliver the world’s first hybrid satellite and ground network across Europe to deliver in-flight Wi-Fi.
What skills will be required and what opportunities exist?
Software and systems engineering and computer science skills are continually in demand and with the emphasis on predictive analytics and analytics in general, data scientists are also desirable. At entry level though, employers will be interested in those with a good engineering or STEM subject degree and once in the industry there will be an opportunity to acquire specialist skills.
Ruy Pinto, chief operations officer at Inmarsat, explains that its Technology Development Programme is designed to give candidates an accelerated platform to develop their career in the field of satellite communications and consists of continuous learning and development.
“The candidates will have the opportunity to work in some of Inmarsat’s specialised teams including, but not limited to: space system development, system architecture, engineering, spectrum management, satellite operations and network operations,” he says, adding that young engineers and technologists have an opportunity to develop core skills and be part of Inmarsat’s “next generation” of services for customers around the globe.
At EutelSat, Robin explains that new graduates could find themselves involved in the deployment and control of its infrastructure in space and on the ground and providing ongoing technical and operational support to commercial teams.
“If there is an ambition to explore new paths within the company, work in satellite design and resource planning, or in the commercial department also represent possible next steps,” he says.
In general, career routes in the industry seem flexible. ViaSat says it eschews predetermined career paths to provide recruits with different options.
“We have people who started out in software engineering and have moved into graphic design and those who have joined as engineers but moved into programme management and marketing,” says Melinda del Toro, vice-president, human resources at ViaSat, who explains that the organisation also recruits from other sectors.
Who are my potential employers and what are the best routes into the industry?
The industry is made up of major operators such as the above as well as aerospace companies like Airbus Defence and Space and BAE, but there are also many SMEs.
techUK reckons that seven in ten of organisations in the space and satellite sector are SMEs working in their own particular industry niches. Alongside operators there are services and supplier companies as well as consultancies. Apprenticeship and graduate routes are available and information on these can be obtained from individual websites.
“Eutelsat welcomes apprentices as we believe they deliver real value both to Eutelsat and for the learner,” says Robin. “From the Eutelsat perspective, young telecommunications engineers provide our teams with the latest knowledge learned at school: in sharing this input they bring a fresh perspective and new ideas to our processes, contributing to the overall innovation effort at Eutelsat.”
Robin explains that many of its employees also have a “dual staff” profile.
“Candidates with an engineering diploma or a major in telecoms and a master’s degree in telecommunications or satellite research are sought after,” he says. The University of Aberystwyth and the University of Surrey are among those offering specialist master's qualifications.
While qualifications are important, attitude is also crucial. Pinto says alongside a good relevant degree, Inmarsat looks for enthusiastic and forward-thinking individuals with ambitions to become the next generation of world-class engineers.
Similarly, del Toro says ViaSat targets “smart people who are curious about their work and the work around them”.
“And who will ask questions and make suggestions that might challenge the status quo,” she says. “We want people willing to put themselves out there and who can learn, unlearn and relearn. The industry and the world is changing fast and we want people interested in keeping pace with that and setting the agenda.”