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Electronic Engineering

Flights of innovation

Company develops systems for aerial mapping and cargo tracking

For a company, technological innovation is the way most elaborate for going far, both in the financial sphere and in the geographical one. This thesis is confirmed by the experience of Orbisat, from São José dos Campos (SP). The company developed an airborne radar system for producing maps in three dimensions (3D) and won a contract for the provision of services in surveying the topographical characteristics of roughly 25% of the territory of Venezuela, worth US$ 3.5 million. This kind of technology is mastered by only two other companies in the whole world: Intermap, from the United States, and Aerosensing, from Germany. Competing with the American supplier, with an advantage in price and technology, Orbisat won the contract from our neighboring country.

The company is now getting ready to carry out the mapping of Ecuador, and is negotiating the same kind of work for the cold lands of Iceland, to the northwest of Europe.Other flights by Orbisat include the launch, last May, of the Faro receiver module, which captures Global Positioning System signals from satellites and supplies the geographical coordinates. It is the first GPS device developed in Brazil. For the end of this year, the company is preparing a communication and security system for haulage companies, also via satellite, that will be used to monitor and control cargo. “Our revenues, R$ 19 million in 2002, should rise to R$ 30 million in 2003”, forecasts Rogério Ferraz de Camargo, the company’s general director.

A forecast of this order would not even have passed through Camargo’s head back in 1984, when, as an engineer recently graduated from the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA), he decided to set up the company, that, with the name of Databus Engenharia, was to dedicate itself to engineering projects in the areas of electronics and telecommunications. The company then had sales amounting to some dozens of thousands of reais a year, and few employees. At the end of the 80’s, Camargo took leave from the business to do a doctoral course in robotics in the Laboratory for Analysis and Architure of Systems Analysis Laboratory (LAAS), in Toulouse, in France. “I went back to Brazil in 1991, with the idea of devoting myself to academic research”, he recalls. Having already lectured at the ITA, he went back onto the institute’s staff, where to this date he is a professor, working part time.

Camargo reactivated the company in 1994, and, two years later, glimpsed an opportunity in the television market in Brazil. Now with the name of Databus Sankay, the company started to produce equipment for receiving TV signals via satellite. “Then, in 1999, we opened up a branch in Manaus, to take advantage of the tax benefits of the Manuas Free Trade Zone”, Camargo says. At the end of 2000, now with the name of Orbisat, the enterprise had 40 employees and sales of R$ 5 million. But to carry on growing, he knew that they needed technology. “Over recent years, 20% of Orbisat’s earnings is reinvested in research and development.” Apart from the determination to set up an innovative company, it was a coincidence that made Orbisat make a bold decision.

At the beginning of 2001, João Roberto Moreira Neto, who had also graduated in engineering from the ITA and concluded his doctorate at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in 1987, to settle in Germany, confessed a dilemma to Camargo, who was a friend of his since their schooldays: he wanted to go back to Brazil, but did not see many possibilities for applying, here, the knowledge he had built up there. Camargo proposed him a partnership in Orbisat. Moreira accepted and took on the responsibility for creating the radar for mapmaking and the company’s remote sensing division, which currently has 30 employees out of a total of one hundred; eight of them are doctors and seven have a master’s degree.

Moreira, nowadays Orbisat’s managing director, brought with him the suppositions that were to guide the radar project, baptized as OrbiSAR-1: the system for the mapmaking segment and the InSAR (interferometric synthetic aperture radar) technology. These radars, which transmit waves and record them immediately after they hit the Earth, operate under any atmospheric condition or light. They replace the aerial photographs traditionally used to produce maps, with enormous benefits in cost, time and precision. “They make it possible to carry out, in a little more than six months, a job that would take ten years with photogrammetry”, he compares.

Moreira’s objective since the beginning of the project was for the radar to capture images in two simultaneous frequencies, to supply both the height of the trees or the buildings and the ground covered by vegetation, buildings etc. Other advantages, according to Rogério, are speed in the delivery of the end products to the customers and better resolution: 25 centimeters by 25, against the 50 by 50 of the other companies. The secret for arriving at these figures lies in the project for the system’s analog and digital circuits and in the software for processing the images.

After all the targets set by Moreira had been met, Orbisat applied for finance from the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES), in July 2001, with the support of the Society for the Promotion of Excellence in Brazilian Software (Softex). And the R$ 4.5 million loan needed to be used quickly, due to an unexpected success. In November, the company, in a consortium with the German company Infoterra, won the international tender process for the Venezuelan government’s Cartosur II project, financed by the World Bank. The intention was to capture and to process digital radar images covering about 253,000 square kilometers of territory between the states of Bolívar and Delta Amacuro, in the central and northwestern regions of Venezuela.

With its superior technology and a price 30% lower than its competitor’s, Orbisat won the – 6 million contract, in which its own share is – 3.5 million. But the problem is that the system was not ready. So Orbisat hired 16 engineers to guarantee the conclusion of the radar in good time and invested R$ 1.5 million of its own resources to carry out the project. With a plane rented from a partner company, Digimapas, which adapted the aircraft to the needs of carrying the radar, Orbisat accomplished the image capture between January and April this year, in 650 hours of flight. “The processing stage, which will result in the delivery of 518 high quality maps on a scale of 1:50,000, will be concluded by August”, Moreira discloses. The InSAR software developed by Orbisat provides for the inclusion, in the maps, of contour lines and several other elements of ground cover, such as the kinds of forests, courses and bodies of water, roads, etc.

The company is now working on the development of the LightSAR radar. “As many applications do not call for a 25 centimeter resolution, we intend to launch a simplified version of the OrbiSAR-1, to bring down even further the cost of the services and, by doing so, to expand the potential market”, he reveals. “Brazilian Amazonia, for example, has still not been mapped this way, and in future the system can even be used by municipal governments to control then expansion of built-up areas and for the purposes of tax collecting”, Camargo notes.

Logistics and security
The recent launch of the GPS receiver module is also expanding Orbisat’s business horizon. The device, which can be marketed on its own, will be part of a communication and security system for freight carriers. It will be launched in the second half of this year and will be operating with GlobalStar, an American company that has a constellation of communication satellites and telephone and data services for the whole of the planet. “This product will give us an advantage in price of about 50%, compared with the similar ones that are one the market”, Camargo says cheerfully.

Another differential of the cargo monitoring system will be the transmission of voice and data and access to the Internet by means of a modem that is capable of operating as well in cell phone frequencies. “The equipment will have a small keyboard attached and the smallest antenna in the market, which makes it more interesting for applications where security is the main objective”, Camargo explains. The development of the user terminal that will be installed, for example, in the cab of the truck, enjoyed support from FAPESP under the Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE), in a project that started in 1999. All the system’s electronic circuits were developed by Orbisat, under the general coordination of researcher Joel Muniz Bezerra. “Brazil’s fleet of trucks has over 10 million vehicles”, Bezerra says. “Some time from now, the use of remote monitoring systems will be a requirement of the insurance companies.”

The project
Development of a User Terminal for the Transmission and Reception of Voice and Data via Satellite (nº 99/06433-7); Modality Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator Joel Muniz Bezerra – Orbisat; Investment R$ 190,600.00 and US$ 57,025.00