A venture to create a constellation of satellites to boost superfast global broadband is considering plans to bring its manufacturing across the Atlantic to Britain.
Sources said executives behind the British Government-backed OneWeb last week briefed civil servants on the merits of moving production of the fleet of thousands of satellites from Florida to the UK.
Such a satellites program could bring another welcome boost to UK manufacturing after Brexit.
Lift-off: A rocket launch in Russia earlier this month sent 36 of the OneWeb satellites into orbit
The first generation of the satellites are being made in the US by Airbus. The aerospace giant believes the next version of the washing machine-sized satellites will likely be built here.
Airbus is a small shareholder in OneWeb, the British-registered space company recently bought out of bankruptcy protection by the UK Government and Indian telecoms tycoon Sunil Bharti Mittal.
The UK and Mittal together own 84 per cent after each paying $500million in a deal finalised last month. The Government has a golden share, meaning it can decide who has access to the network.
OneWeb is building a network of 650 Leo – low earth orbit – satellites designed to create a global fast broadband service for remote areas.
It launched 36 from a site in Russia earlier this month – making a total of 110 now in orbit. Ultimately 650 satellites will be built in the first wave of the project, with the ambition to create up to 6,000.
It is understood this week’s Government briefing was centred on technical aspects of OneWeb’s network and how best it can be used. The system could potentially aid Britain’s smart motorways traffic management systems.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma had suggested the OneWeb investment could strengthen Britain’s manufacturing base during the summer. No firm proposals were laid out.
However, in an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Richard Franklin, managing director for defence and space at the UK arm of Airbus, said his company is keen to make the switch. ‘There’s a real intent and desire in Airbus that manufacturing is done from the UK,’ he said.
But that looks 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 – low earth orbit – satellites designed to create a global fast broadband service for remote areas
‘It’s hard to move much of that ‘today order’ but for the next generation design we’ve got the capabilities in the UK and we’re waiting to invest with UK Government and OneWeb in that next generation of production,’ he added.
‘We have the ties here, we’ve got the people and the capability. It’s just a question of let’s get the economics going first with generation one.’ Franklin estimated that design work would likely begin in around 2022-23 with full production following the year after.
The move would provide a boost for Britain’s beleaguered aerospace sector which has seen Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce slash thousands of jobs.
The production switch would not necessarily create new jobs within Airbus, but its investment could spur employment in its supply chain.
Toulouse-based Airbus has a significant UK manufacturing presence, including large sites in Stevenage and Portsmouth.
Sources said it is possible some Florida work could be retained. 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.
OneWeb’s other 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 spokesman 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 pleased with the partnership with Airbus. The production line is now achieving two satellites a day. We look forward to engaging with them as we look at generation two.’
In a signal of the growing activity in the sector, the European Commission this week enlisted 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 $1.25billion fundraising. Sources said it had received interest from 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 US bankruptcy protection in March after troubled backer SoftBank walked away from talks over a $2billion fundraising.
The Government’s investment was questioned over the use of taxpayer money on a relatively high risk project.
However, the deal was welcomed by some in the space industry as a signal of intent with Britain now blocked from some Europe-wide development programmes, due to Brexit.