A company aiming to create a constellation of satellites to boost ultra-fast global broadband is planning to take its manufacturing across the Atlantic to Britain.
Sources said executives at UK government-backed OneWeb last week briefed officials on the benefits of moving production of the thousands of satellite fleet from Florida to the UK.
Such a satellite program could provide another welcome boost to manufacturing in the UK after Brexit.
Take off: rocket launch in Russia earlier this month put 36 of OneWeb satellites into orbit
The first generation of satellites are manufactured in the United States by Airbus. The aerospace giant believes the next iteration of the washing machine-sized satellites will likely be built here.
Airbus is a small shareholder of OneWeb, the British space company recently acquired by the British government and Indian telecommunications magnate Sunil Bharti Mittal.
The UK and Mittal together hold 84% after each paying $ 500 million in a deal finalized last month. The government has a gold stake, which means it can decide who has access to the grid.
OneWeb is building a network of 650 Leo satellites – low earth orbit – designed to create a fast global broadband service for remote areas.
It launched 36 from a site in Russia earlier this month, with a total of 110 now in orbit. Ultimately, 650 satellites will be built during the first wave of the project, with the ambition of creating up to 6,000.
It is understood that this week’s government briefing focused on the technical aspects of the OneWeb network and how best to use it. The system could potentially help UK motorway intelligent traffic management systems.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma had suggested that the investment in OneWeb could bolster Britain’s manufacturing base over the summer. No firm proposal was formulated.
However, in an interview with the Mail on Sunday, Richard Franklin, chief defense and space officer for the British branch of Airbus, said his company wanted to make the switch. “There is a real intention and a desire at Airbus for manufacturing to be done from the UK,” he said.
But that seems unlikely for the first generation simply because the design is fixed and the supply chain has already been purchased. [production will stay in Florida].
OneWeb is building a network of 650 Leo satellites – low Earth orbit – designed to create a fast global broadband service for remote areas
“It’s difficult to move a lot of this ‘order today’, but for next gen design we have the capabilities in the UK and we expect to invest with the UK government and OneWeb in this. next generation of production, ”he added.
“We have the connections here, we have the people and the capabilities. It’s just about getting the economy going with the first generation. Franklin estimated that design work would likely begin around 2022-2023 with full production the following year.
The move would give a boost to Britain’s struggling aerospace industry, which has seen Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce cut thousands of jobs.
The change in production would not necessarily create new jobs within Airbus, but its investment could boost employment in its supply chain.
Airbus, based in Toulouse, has a significant industrial presence in the UK, including large sites in Stevenage and Portsmouth.
Sources said it is possible that some Florida works may be preserved. But the payload – the “brain” of the satellite – would likely be made in Britain. A final decision is expected next year after discussions between OneWeb, its backers and Airbus.
Other OneWeb manufacturing partners include the European arm of satellite technology specialist Hughes, which has a site in Milton Keynes, and component supplier Teledyne.
OneWeb faces stiff competition from Space X’s Elon Musk (pictured) and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos
A spokesperson for OneWeb, which faces stiff competition from two of the world’s richest men – Space X’s Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – said, “We are very happy with the partnership with Airbus. The production line now produces two satellites per day. We look forward to working with them as we take a look at the second generation.
As a sign of growing activity in the sector, the European Commission this week called on a consortium of companies to study how its own Leo broadband to satellite system could work.
OneWeb executive chairman Mittal is in talks with several suitors over a $ 1.25 billion fundraiser. Sources said it had sparked the interest of two space operators, a sovereign wealth fund and an institutional investor.
OneWeb was founded in 2012 and began working with Airbus in 2015. The company entered bankruptcy protection in the United States in March after struggling lender SoftBank backed away from discussions about a fundraising of $ 2 billion.
Government investment has been called into question over using taxpayer money for a relatively high risk project.
However, the deal was greeted by some in the space industry as a signal of intent with Britain now blocked from some EU-wide development programs, due to Brexit.
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