The release was originally scheduled for April 27th. But Rocket Lab didn’t want to take any chances with its Electron rocket, whose first stage was in everyone’s attention. Finally, it was on the night of the 2nd to the 3rd of May here in France that in Mahia, New Zealand, on the other side of the world, an Electron rocket left Earth.
If history recalls that this was the first flight in which the company managed to capture its first stage rocket when it returned to Earth, at the other end of the world near Rennes, the ‘Unseenlabs’ teams didn’t care about this booster rocket, and everyone was looking at the top of this Electron, which houses 34 payloads.
Among this small constellation of satellites, only one of them belonged to Unseenlabs. It was the seventh satellite of the Breton company, based in Rennes. The latter has been developing a constellation for several years, and is today one of the biggest players in the field of marine surveillance by radiofrequency detection.
But to fully understand how this small company from Rennes can dominate a market that interests armies around the world, it is necessary to travel back in time seven years, to 2015.
At the time, three brothers decided to enter the space and build their own company. Driven by Jonathan Galic, who at the time worked at Airbus in the space division, the brothers will embark on the adventure. The idea is to do something totally new: signal intelligence.
Satellites to scan the oceans
Behind this complex and extensive name, there is actually hidden what will make Unseenlabs successful. The company is thus able to capture electromagnetic waves, analyze and map them. The latter come from ships, present at sea, and can thus be better monitored by the company’s satellites.
The company is therefore launching a first satellite in 2019 “to show that the technology works”, explains Cannelle Gaucher, the company’s communications director. After a first launch with Rocket Lab, the company is turning to SpaceX and other players to multiply launches. “We really try to go where there is space, the releases are very popular and we wanted a constellation as soon as possible.”
A much more reliable system
Today, with seven satellites in orbit around the Earth, Unseenlabs is able to provide snapshots of an area of the planet every “4 to 8 hours” explains Cannelle Gaucher. Enough to provide very valuable information to the company’s customers, but still not enough for Rennes’ small team that has big ambitions: “The idea would be to have 25 satellites in orbit by 2025, this would allow us to have a near real-time rendering with an image every 10-15 minutes.”
Because this data that Unseenlabs collects is a real gold mine, especially for the authorities. “Today we work a lot with states, in particular the French Navy to monitor the EEZ and identify which ship is there.” An important mission, which should be fulfilled, on paper, by a lighthouse, called AIS, which is present on all ships.
“The problem is that this lighthouse, all ships can cut it whenever they want, or modify it to pretend to be another one. This makes tracking nearly impossible.”. Far from being an isolated practice, disabling beacons affects hundreds of ships around the world. In certain strategic areas, estimates are that one in two boats deactivates their AIS beacon.
State customers, but not only….
The data from Unseenlabs, therefore, is of great help to the authorities who fight every day against illegal fishing, or even degassing off the coast, as was the case in Corsica a few months ago. A real tragedy for the marine environment of the Island of Beauty.
But in addition to helping the world’s navies to enforce the law, the information collected by Unseenlabs satellites finds other customers. “We have insurance companies that are very interested in what we do. They want to make sure the ship doesn’t make an unforeseen detour, or on the contrary, bypass risky areas like the coast of Somalia, where there is a lot of piracy. »
In addition to these purely commercial clients, Unseenlabs works with NGOs so that they can have much more realistic numbers about what is happening at sea and thus alert authorities with reliable and much more meaningful data than the AIS beacons that often minimize the problem.
For example, marine protected areas where fishing is prohibited are never traversed by a trawler, at least according to AIS lighthouse figures, but the reality is very different, and data from Unseenlabs shows this. “with a reliability of more than 95%”.
Monitoring the seas without polluting space
If Unseenlabs works to make the seas safer and cleaner through the monitoring it does, it doesn’t forget to respect space, where the satellites work. Since their inception, the company’s satellites have been designed to de-orbit as soon as their life in space ends (after 25 years Editor’s Note). “French space law is very strict in this matter and obliges us not to ship polluting materials on satellites, so that deorbiting is as clean as possible. »
A subject increasingly taken into account by the various actors in the space world, those who are aware that in order to continue to use space, it is necessary to preserve it. As such, the Unseenlabs satellites are all designed to be desorbed and that the latter does not cause any damage in space, but also in the atmosphere when they return.