Interview Series: Sean McDaniel, CEO of ATLAS Space Operations
By Kimberly Mitchell
“ATLAS was founded on the belief that access to space should be simple and affordable.”
-Sean McDaniel, CEO ATLAS Space Operations
In the new space race where innovative small businesses and start-ups are rapidly developing and launching their own satellites, communications is the link to success. ATLAS Space Operations saw an opportunity to overcome the barriers faced by small companies searching for affordable ground support – and an alternative to an overwhelmed, expensive legacy ground network. ATLAS, located in Traverse City, Michigan, has a leadership team with over 130 years of combined experience in space and engineering with CEO Sean McDaniel at the helm. In this interview, McDaniel explores why ATLAS has been successful and what the future of the company and the space industry looks like.
What is ATLAS Space Operations?
ATLAS was founded on the belief that access to space should be simple and affordable. Since the dawn of the space industry it has been subdivided into three major segments: Launch, Satellite (space), and Ground. ATLAS approaches the industry with a new paradigm, recognizing that communications is the common thread through the entire space industry and the global markets it supports. To that end, we are redefining the ground segment to the “communications segment”. By virtualizing satellite ground network operations, we are disrupting the way the industry thinks about communicating in space.
At our core, ATLAS provides ground communication services that enable global access to real-time data from space. We have built a team dedicated to providing affordable, secure, and exceptional global communications services to the rapidly growing global SATCOM industry. We do this through 3 key initiatives: our Freedom™ Software, our global network of ground antennas, and providing clients their data faster than previously thought attainable.
Describe the benefits of the Freedom™ Network?
The Freedom™ Network is a globally distributed network of satellite ground stations (or teleports) owned by ATLAS and ATLAS partners. All of our ground sites are accessible through a unified, cloud-based, access platform, we call Freedom™. The Freedom™ Network is the world’s first global network of cloud-integrated sat-antennas. What this means is all of our ground sites and partner sites worldwide are integrated into our Freedom™ Software.
The key to Freedom™ lies in its ability to automatically receive and deliver data through the entire network via a single, secure API. We have designed this software to build contact schedules, perform uplinks and downlinks, stream satellite telemetry in near-real time, monitor the health of a client’s constellation, and aid in writing analysis tools to monetize client data streams.
So, what does all of this mean for our clients? This allows satellite operators or constellation owners to focus on the interpretation of their data, analysis and delivering that data to their customers. As we like to say, this gives clients access to their data on their terms.
Can you tell me about your work with the NOAA?
ATLAS is on contract to provide satellite communications services to NOAA/NESDIS for the COSMIC-2 satellite program and other polar orbiting weather satellites. Currently, we provide that support from ground stations in Ghana, Tahiti, and Finland.
NOAA gathers data from its Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-2) mission. This enables NOAA to significantly improve its tropical storm and hurricane prediction capabilities with virtually no human interaction. Through ALTAS, COSMIC-2 is able to deliver valuable intelligence that will help shape global reactions to terrestrial weather phenomena.
What project is your company working on that you are most excited about?
There are two projects I am very excited about.
Cognitive Constellation Management – This is a development activity with NASA via a recently awarded Phase II Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract. The goal of this program is to further the development of an algorithmic solution to improve satellite ground station contact schedules. This will be accomplished by implementing software that analyzes a project’s importance, optimizes tasks, and produces a goal-optimized schedule — all on a ‘lights-out’ basis. Once operational, both commercial and government users will see substantial cost and time reductions.
Reduced Latency Space Data Rapid Prototype – This is a development effort awarded to ATLAS through the Defense Innovation Unit for the prototyping and demonstration of a multi-band multi-mission antenna system. The first phase of this effort will be completed in October 2020 with a live sky demonstration of the capability to downlink from multiple satellites simultaneously in different frequency bands. The confluence of ATLAS innovation accelerates the US Government’s access to a hybrid space architecture.
Where do you see ATLAS in the next 5/10 years?
At ATLAS, we are dedicated to solving the most complex problems of the space industry, the communications segment. We see communications as the common thread that connects the launch segment, space segment, and all of the markets that rely on value added products and services from space. ATLAS is well on its way to being the world’s largest teleport operator, providing near continuous connectivity to and from space on a global scale, as well as to the Moon and back.
What do you see as your biggest opportunity and your biggest threat?
Our biggest opportunity lies in ATLAS’ support to the US Government’s ongoing initiative to establish a hybrid space architecture. Hybrid space architecture refers to leveraging commercial capabilities to meet USG requirements. We are deeply involved on the forefront of this development through multiple advanced Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contracts with NASA and DoD. We are also currently demonstrating this on a daily basis through our Freedom™ Platform, which is providing NOAA and DoD customers with daily access to our growing network of 14 ground stations worldwide. Our government clients are telling us that ATLAS’ technology is allowing them to show rapid progress toward hybrid space architecture development.
The biggest threat to ATLAS would be any sudden reduction in US Government’s space development budgets, usually programmed through Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) funding lines. We have been very effective at weathering the economic impacts of the pandemic, without USG stimulus. Right now, we are on the cusp of delivering on a variety of operational capabilities to our USG clients. Funding cuts usually result in reprogramming of budgets away from RDT&E and into working capital and weapon system procurement. This would delay progress we have made with our USG partners and could undermine small business innovation across the board.
What do you think other people should know about ATLAS?
ATLAS is more than a “ground station” company. Yes, it is true we do own and operate a network of antennas, and provide access to those antennas as a service. That is the physical layer.
The most tangible. While the physical layer of satellite communications is necessary, what we are most focused on is the virtual layer of the business.
Space as an industry is burdened with a broad and changing set of communications protocols and standards. This ultimately leads to every mission being designed with a unique space communications solution, with the satellite operator having to uniquely engineer their connection with the spacecraft. But, what if they did not? What if, for example, they didn’t have to necessarily care who manufactured the modem at the ground site? Or even which ground site their spacecraft was connected to? What if there was a network that did all the work for them? A network that delivered their data based on their mission objectives, business goals, and the goals of their clients? A network that did all of that, with virtually no engineering on the part of the satellite operator would simplify things, right? That is where ATLAS comes in.
What differentiates ATLAS from your competitors?
I think the biggest difference between ATLAS and the rest of the ground segment is our innovative approach to space communications. Traditionally, other ground station companies simply own and operate their antenna network. ATLAS is pushing to not only provide clients a global antenna network but provide a turn-key communications solution that automates much of the costly, labor intensive aspects of legacy SATCOM.
Why was Michigan chosen as the Headquarters?
We get this question a lot. I have rarely seen companies with a HQ in, say, Silicon Valley, get asked why they chose that location. By now it seems obvious. Or is it? Michigan is the birthplace of the automotive industry and has a history of pioneering modern telecommunications as a first adopter of Bell Telephone Company license in 1877 to operate phone lines in Detroit. Michigan has historically been a major player in defense and aerospace, leading the Midwest in manufacturing and production. Additionally, Michigan academic institutions consistently rank in the top ten for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics schools in the country.
Recent interest in space has brought forward an initiative funded by the great State of Michigan to identify two locations for both vertical and horizontal satellite launch facilities in Michigan – spaceports. The Midwest is also emerging as a leader in investing in space and space related technology companies. Additionally, Michigan was recently ranked #8 for Aerospace Manufacturing Attractiveness by PwC. For all of these reasons, it just makes the most sense for the company to be here. We are extremely proud to be among the first in the space industry to set down our roots in Michigan.
Who is your target client?
Our clients are government and commercial satellite owners/operators, data consumers, and consumers of RF broadband communications services.
Why are you going to be successful?
As a company, ATLAS already is successful. Personally, I credit our team. When it comes to the communications segment of the space industry, the ATLAS team is filled with world class experts. We are fortunate to employ a group that are passionate about our vision, our culture, and our mission. I see it every day, with ATLAS’ debut at #102 on the Inc. 5000 – and #15 in Software Companies – recent wins with NASA and the DoD, and the outstanding support they give to the local community. We have been very successful to date, and we look forward to continuously proving that to the industry and our clients.
How many ground stations are built and how many are planned to be built?
ATLAS has 14 active ground stations dispersed around the globe. We have 6 additional antennas currently under construction – all set to be active and ready for clients use in 2020. ATLAS has a build plan that consists of over 60 hybrid RF-Optical ground stations to be integrated through 2022.
Why build ground stations now?
Right now, there are more spacecraft launching and in orbit than the current ground segment infrastructure can support. Making right now the perfect time for ATLAS to build out our global antenna network. By building out our globally dispersed ground network to support both polar and equatorial orbits, we are positioned to help ease the data bottleneck currently facing the industry.
Learn more about ATLAS Space Operations’ Freedom™ Network and launch support at atlasground.com.
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