New strategic direction and African focus for South African space agency

May 23rd, 2017, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT, Articles: PositionIT

An interview with the chief executive officer of SANSA, Dr. Valanathan Munsami.

In an exclusive interview, Clare van Zwieten, managing editor at EE Publishers posed a number of questions to South African National Space Agency (SANSA) CEO Dr. Valanathan Munsami to explore issues surrounding the new strategic direction that the agency will be taking and its new Africa focus.

You were appointed as the CEO of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) in January this year; what did you do prior to this appointment?

Dr. Valanathan Munsami, CEO of SANSA

I worked for the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in a number of different positions. I started off as the Director of Space Science and Technology with my primary responsibility being the drafting of the National Space Strategy and helping to establish the South African National Space Agency (SANSA). Then I moved up to become the Chief Director of Space Science and then the Deputy Director General for Research, Development and Innovation. Recently, I was meant to go to Addis Ababa for four years to help the African Union establish the frameworks for the African Space Programme, but this plan changed with my appointment as chief executive officer for SANSA.

SANSA has recently completed a five-year strategic framework plan. What major changes, if any, can we expect at SANSA and its various divisions?

The exercise around the strategic framework involved us going back to our mandate in terms of the act, the strategies, and policies, to get a sense as to whether we had followed through on these intentions. During this process, we identified two areas that we haven’t been focusing on – telecommunication satellites and navigation satellite services.

With regards to a telecommunications satellite, there is a discussion taking place between the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services around a national telecommunications satellite. I think it has gone to the cabinet structures for consideration and approval, and if the go-ahead is given, SANSA will be playing a leading role in the management of the satellite.

Decisions will then need to be made regarding whether South Africa procures or builds those capabilities internally because we are talking about a satellite form that we are not necessarily configured to handle. If you look at the assembly and testing facilities, we can push it to three tons, but with telecommunication satellites, we’re looking at anywhere between four to six tons. If we’re going to build those capabilities internally, it will mean a massive revamp of our infrastructure to be able to accommodate that. But we need to start somewhere in terms of building local capabilities – be that up to sub-system level, or transponders, whatever the case may be.

In terms of navigation satellite services, we are looking at augmentation platforms involving ground and space-based augmentation systems. With regard to the space-based augmentation system, have a business case on the table, and there have been some tests done on an operational system. And we’re looking at operationalising it in this setting.

In addition, a new focus for SANSA will be an African focus with our target market becoming Africa, instead of South Africa. We will be developing partnerships with other African research institutions, whether public or private, and we will be building capabilities in order to satisfy this expanded market.

From an earth observation perspective we had to differentiate between SANSA and the industry to which we provide leadership and support. So we have agreed that SANSA will focus on the ICT, data, and ICT infrastructure as a backbone for what’s required for the country, in terms of servicing and the needs of government. Having an ICT backbone in place will also enable small and medium enterprises to use the platform to build applications, products, services and tools without having to invest in ICT infrastructure. Beyond that, we will need to support other public and private sector institutions to assist them in developing additional products and services, and SANSA will hold back from going into those aspects of the value chain.

How do you see the role of a space agency in South Africa? Is SANSA modelling itself more on a European model where the emphasis is on societal benefits, or more on a US model, where there is a lot more commercial emphasis?

It’s kind of a bit of both. The primary focus of South African space activities is on optimising the benefits of space science and technologies to address challenges that we have. Not just in South Africa, but in Africa as well. In terms of the way we are configured at SANSA, we are looking at optimising the full internal value chain.

Let’s assume that you need to develop a specific satellite: our Space Engineering Directorate will take the requirements and plug them into the technical specifications of the satellite itself; and once the satellite is designed, built, and manufactured, it will then go into orbit and the Space Operations Directorate at Hartebeesthoek will take over mission control, and then we’ll also bring the data back. If it’s an earth observation satellite, then the Earth Observation Directorate will take charge of how that data gets distributed, stored and processed in that system.   This directorate will also collate the user requirements and engage with the users of this data.

We’re working on ensuring that there’s a seamless integration between these different directorates to establish a national system of innovation, what I would call a space ecosystem. SANSA will be providing this basic value chain, but then we’re expecting industry to come in, and support and strengthen the value chain. Industry players and public sector institutions play a key role in this and ideally we should not be duplicating resources. SANSA should not be going into a space that is earmarked or mandated for other institutions. For example, with regard to water applications, there’s a Water Research Commission, and we will work with them instead of duplicating efforts.   So definitely there’s a role for many players in space.

How do you see industry playing that role? Could you give us some examples of how it will work?

If we want to have an Africa focus, we need to work as a collective: SANSA together with industry and public sector institutions. And we have to agree on what our respective roles and responsibilities are upfront instead of deciding as we move along. In fact, we’re having a discussion on this week with industry and public sector institutions to decide from an earth observation perspective, how we can come together and organise ourselves to take forward the focus of being a platform for the African continent.

Another example in terms of the Africa focus relates to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). We are sort of piggy-backing on what the SKA is doing, even though it relates to astronomy, because it is also a big data project. They’ve started to build capacity in other African countries in terms of high performance computing platforms; and we have identified an opportunity for this platform to be used for other applications as well.

From a SANSA perspective, we’re taking the lead in terms of pushing these initiatives forward, but we’re ensuring that industry partners with us as we move along, so that we can identify opportunities for industry in space.

How do you see the role of space agencies changing in line with technological developments such as high altitude drones, small satellites, cloud-based services, subscription models, and increased emphasis on information products as opposed to data?

I think we’re at a crossroads at the moment. I should mention that much as we have a plethora of products and services, I think we’re only scratching the surface. There’s a lot more that can be done from the data segment point of view. Space agencies tend to focus on the satellite imagery, but the actual value comes from integrating the satellite imagery with in-situ data. And, this is why SANSA needs to work with other institutions.

The information that you would get from the drones, and perhaps the high-altitude pseudo-satellites and so on, are complementary sets of information and we have to find a way of converging all of these different datasets into a single platform. A user shouldn’t have to come in and start organising data in this platform; the data should be sitting there, waiting to be used. And so, the software tools that we develop, must be able to integrate different datasets in order to provide the information that the user wants. The user is not interested in where the data comes from; all the user is interested in is the information he or she requires to make a decision.

So, I think there’s a convergence emerging, where different platforms and different data sources are coming together. But I think it’s still early days and we’re still finding our feet.

There is increasing pressure on space agencies and satellite imagery providers to provide open data. What is SANSA’s position on open data?

In the early 2000s, we chaired the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) which comprises space agencies from around the world. During this time, there was one initiative that we put on the table – data democracy – and essentially what data democracy advocates, is open data. So, from the South African perspective, we firmly believe that open source data is the way to go, unfortunately though we are restricted in terms of the satellite imagery we obtain as in many instances it is sourced from commercial contracts and we need to comply with these licencing agreements. This limits us from ensuring that satellite imagery becomes open data. In terms of our own platforms though, we’re developing the EO-SAT satellite which we’re targeting for completion by the end of December next year, with a launch date in early 2019. We’ve indicated that the data from EO-SAT must be available for the whole of Africa, and not just South Africa.

Do you plan on continuing with the SPOT multi-user agreement and the SPOT national mosaic product, which is currently provided free of charge to government departments and universities?

The SPOT contract comes to an end in 2018 and we have to look at continuation, but SANSA cannot make the decision unilaterally, because it’s effectively the users who determine the value of the satellite imagery. We will need to engage the users on whether we should continue acquiring the SPOT data or go with new alternatives.

In principle are you still looking to support something like a national mosaic?

Absolutely, that’s critical. I think there is a lot of value in terms of the national mosaic and people being able to access it.

SANSA recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and in terms of that agreement, SANSA is going to be providing earth observation products and services. How is that agreement going to work?

When we signed off on the agreement itself, we were greeted with two thematic areas that we will start to focus on immediately – food security and water. In the MoU, we’ve agreed that there will be a technical working group between NEPAD and SANSA to understand what the user requirements are because SANSA has products and services for food security and water available but we need to assess whether the products and services need to be reconfigured, or refined for application in other African countries.

Will this be a commercial arrangement or an open data arrangement?

From our side, it’s an open data arrangement, but again, we might be limited in some respect. So, for example, we procure SPOT imagery for South Africa, but we also have the reseller agreement for the South African Development Community (SADC) region but not beyond that. So, if we are relooking at the licence agreement, we could look for a broader Africa focus. We also have access to CBERS – the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite – and the arrangement is that South Africa, working with China, will distribute the imagery for the SADC region, and the rest of Africa will get access to this imagery working with Brazil.

What is the African Research Cloud and how is it going to operate?

Well, at the moment, several universities are involved… UCT, North West University, University of Western Cape… there’s quite a few of them; there’s also the SKA and SANSA. So, in terms of the MoU that we’re hoping to sign by the end of May, the African Research Cloud will be all of these entities. Essentially, the way it will work is that each of these different institutions will take care of their own independent nodes but that the various nodes will plug into each other, creating a virtual cloud system. From there it will plug into the rest of southern Africa and then Africa as well – creating one cloud system. It will have an open data focus because the primary driver for the platform is essentially research and development, and researchers and scientists will be using it as a data repository and making use of its processing capabilities.

The US space agency, NASA, has set up a consortium to better understand the economic value that earth observation provides in order to be able to justify the value of earth observation data to decision makers. Is this going to be a focus for SANSA as well?

Yes, it has always been a focus but I think we should be more scientific about how we ascertain the value of what we’re doing, in terms of the investments we’re making and what we’re reaping. We have started to look externally at the methodologies used by organisations like the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and NASA to determine the socio-economic benefits of space applications, and aim to peg down a methodology that we could use at SANSA.

It is important for international space agencies to work together. Do you have any major new initiatives in the pipeline?

At the moment, we’re looking at a joint MoU between SANSA and the European Space Agency, and between SANSA and the French space agency, CNES, which we’re hoping to sign this year. We’re also going to renew our collaboration with the Joint Research Commission of the European Commission – in terms of products and services that they’ve developed and to establish how we can collaborate. There’s also a new agreement with the DLR, the German space agency.

We’re also exploring collaborative opportunities with a number of entities abroad. We’ve been working with Airbus on a number of fronts, and there are some Belgian companies that want to work with us. Later this month, I’m going to the UK, to discuss collaboration on an industry-to-industry level, and thereafter I’m going to China to sign an agreement for a joint satellite programme under BRICS.

There are many opportunities coming up, but we have to be strategic and focus in terms of where we can extract maximum benefit for our vision for Africa.

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