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Catching up with Mr Sulaiman Al Ali, CEO of Thuraya

Mr. Sulaiman Al Ali, CEO of Thuraya Mr. Sulaiman Al Ali, CEO of Thuraya

UAE-based satellite operator, Al Yah Satellite Communications Company (Yahsat) has been steaming ahead with the development of its new half a billion-dollar L-band satellite system. Built by Airbus with operation planned for 2024, Thuraya 4-NGS will enhance coverage, boost speeds, and enrich the products and services portfolio. Digital Ship caught up with Mr. Sulaiman Al Ali, Thuraya’s CEO, to find out how the company has been progressing with the development of its latest programme.

Thuraya is the mobile satellite services subsidiary of the UAE’s flagship satellite services operator, Yahsat. The company has spent the last year achieving various milestones in the development of its satellite system, Thuraya 4-NGS, which is planned for launch in 2023 and due to begin commercial operations in 2024. Accommodating thrice the current system capacity and delivering data speeds above 1Mbps (one of the highest speeds in L-Band/MSS[1]), Thuraya 4-NGS will significantly enhance connectivity at sea, provide greater opportunities to optimise vessel performance, increase safety and security of vessels, and help boost the wellbeing of the industry’s seafarers.

Speaking with Digital Ship, Mr. Sulaiman Al Ali explained that the driving force behind the new satellite innovation was Thuraya’s aspiration to deliver higher value, more services and enhanced capabilities to the end user to meet shifts in market demands and prepare for them even before they arise. “While ensuring continuity for existing customers is a key objective, we are equally keen on delivering advanced performance and innovative capabilities to cater for existing and new market requirements,” he said.

The new ecosystem will be capable of handling greater traffic than there is capacity for today and is being designed with the latest payload technology to ensure its flexibility and adaptability to support the surge in hotspot areas. Thanks to the advanced technology available today, Thuraya 4-NGS will connect latest IoT technologies, sensors, and automation platforms to support multiple technologies and boost cybersecurity in parts of the market that have not been captured before. Thuraya 4-NGS will incorporate a large 12-metre L-band antenna and a payload with onboard processing, providing advanced routing flexibility of up to 3,200 channels with dynamic power allocation over a number of spot beams. 

Expanding reach

Today, Thuraya provides comprehensive coverage of the world’s busiest and most critical shipping routes across the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. Complementing this, Thuraya 4-NGS will extend the company’s reach further to include new shipping hubs. Capturing the market share in these regions will be a top priority for the company in the coming years.  

In particular, the coverage will prove vital for fisheries. Mr Al Ali explained, “The expanded coverage will help governments monitor fishing boats and ensure they are compliant with regulations and restrictions. If they are not, an alert will be sent to the authority and then to the fishing boat, enabling them to move as quickly as possible and avoid penalties. This will also support the growth of marine life and prevent accidental fishing in protected areas.”

Furthermore, for seafarers onboard fishing vessels, which are often operating in harsh conditions for extended periods of time, the new capabilities onboard will facilitate better access to data that can be used for entertainment purposes or to video call their families.

Flexible pricing customised for specific usage

Thuraya is offering different pricing plans including a flexible usage-based model. “Many of the services seen in the market today are provided as a one-size-fits-all approach. However, based on our market intelligence and customer feedback we observed different requirements per country and customer. By leveraging our technical architecture and business model telecom that are based on terrestrial standards we were able to create customised packages to meet the specific needs for our customers,” Mr Al Ali told us.

The flexible pricing structure allows each customer’s requirements to be tailored, ensuring they are not paying for more than they need. “We have seen previously in the market that some customers will come with requirements that are above what they actually need. When we started entering into these discussions with the customers, we were able to identify how and where they could lower their costs by providing them with a model tailored to their needs.”

Advancing UAE’s space strategy 

The Thuraya 4-NGS programme is being led by Emirati engineers, marking a significant growth of the space and satellite sector in the UAE and showcasing the critical role played by Yahsat in the development of space agenda in the country. It reflects Yahsat’s strong commitment to investing in future generations of Emirati space and satellite engineers and promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education.

In 2017, Yahsat founded the Yahsat Space Lab in Abu Dhabi and to date, the lab has produced four CubeSats (miniature satellites used in low Earth orbit) by students, two of them funded by Yahsat. More than 50 UAE national interns have been trained there. The first, MYSat-1, was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018 to analyse communication with CubeSat, establish telemetry download and take pictures of the UAE’s land area. The second, DhabiSat was launched to ISS in February 2021 to access the accuracy of Attitude Determination and Control Subsystem (ADCS) and take pictures to validate the same. It was deployed to orbit in July this year. Yahsat’s Space Programme has involved close work with other UAE space entities including the UAE Space Agency and Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).

Navigating the COVID-19 crisis

Despite the global pandemic, Thuraya has kept on track with the development of 4-NGS. Mr Al Ali attributes the company’s progress to its strong customer and service provider relationships. “When the lockdown came, we were really grateful for the partnerships and good relationships we had built. We could still communicate with everyone and keep the momentum, because we had strong and trusted relations with our partners,” he explained.

Unsurprisingly, the transport of some equipment was a little challenging when the pandemic first hit but issues were resolved quickly. One greater challenge Mr Al Ali pointed to was the inability to deliver in-person demonstrations. This loss of direct human interaction that would usually be in abundance at exhibitions and helps cement relationships was something Mr Al Ali admitted was slightly limiting. That said, he confirmed it has enabled Thuraya’s team to innovate and focus even more to stay with the partners and ensure service delivery to the customers.

The most recent updates to the Thuraya 4-NGS programme include:

In June 2021, Yahsat announced the confirmation of its Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for Thuraya 4-NGS. A PDR provides a comprehensive review, validating Airbus’ design approach for both the physical and functional requirements of the satellite system. It also marks an important step towards the on-schedule completion of the satellite and confirms its effectiveness for in-orbit operation.

On September 2, 2021, Yahsat announced that it has signed an agreement with the Spanish hi-tech group, GMV to supply the control centre and flight dynamics system for Thuraya 4-NGS. The control system will provide safe and reliable control of the satellite over its service life using efficient and easy-to-use tools. The flight dynamics system will l help improve performance and increase the operational life of the Thuraya 4-NGS satellite, which will augment the company’s long-term capital expenditure efficiency.

On September 8, 2021, SpaceX was chosen by Yahsat to launch Thuraya 4-NGS. According to Thuraya, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 was selected largely due to its high reliability and advanced capabilities.

On September 9, 2021, Yahsat announced that Cobham has been selected to deliver a comprehensive mobile broadband system for Thuraya, including ground infrastructure and products to operate as part of the Thuraya 4-NGS system.

Since 2020, Thuraya has been refurbishing its ground network and services. The company worked with Ericsson for a core network modernisation and upgrade to a 4G and 5G ready infrastructure. As a result, mobile-data users based in remote areas where traffic is dense, are benefiting from higher availability and reliability.

Future plans

In addition to the launch of Thuraya 4-NGS, the company will continue to enhance its web-based tracking and monitoring service, SatTrack. The ultimate goal, according to Mr Al Ali, is to build an entire ecosystem around this service, further optimising onboard operations through condition-based monitoring, reducing OPEX and boosting communication between onshore and offshore teams.

Thuraya’s 2019-launched maritime voice solution with tracking and monitoring capabilities, MarineStar, will also benefit from some upgrades throughout 2022. Mr Al Ali noted that due to demand from fisheries, the company has experienced high demand of MarineStar and will continue working with third-party system integrators to add other tracking applications to Thuraya’s portfolio.

[1] Mobile Satellite Services

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Digital Ship magazine provides the latest information about maritime satellite communications technology, software systems, navigation technology, computer networks, data management and TMSA. It is published ten times a year.

 

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