GNSS technologies accessible to everyone: interview with Xavier Banqué-Casanovas, CEO at the innovative Catalan company ROKUBUN S.L.
Geosmart Magazine – Innovation as always involves practical solutions capable of set innovative technologies in the widespread market. ROKUBUN seems to leverage both on the important credentials of the ops team, and because it has chosen to compete in the international market on frontier technologies such as GNSS.
Could you tell us a bit about ROKUBUN history and where does this innovative vision for the geospatial technology sector come from?
Xavier B.C.- Rokubun, which comes from the Japanese word for sextant Rokubungi was founded back in 2015 with the vision of democratizing the precision navigation to make it affordable and scalable for mass-market. Soon after founding the company, we realized there was a yet-to-be satisfied need for accurate yet affordable and scalable navigation solutions (drones, autonomous driving, Location Based Services…). The trigger to found the company was the Business Incubation Center that ESA established in Barcelona by that time. Founders decided that such an opportunity to build a business project on our own had to be seized. The founding team counts with more than 30 years of aggregated experience in the Space R&D business, specifically in Navigation and Earth Observation and we both shared the aim for creating something new in the downstream space business. We decided to put all this experience to work in order to come up with a new way of approaching satellite navigation business aimed at delivering accuracy as well as scalability and affordability at the same time, so that mass-market verticals could benefit from precise navigation. Probably the innovative approach comes from a survival instinct: given that Rokubun had to find its spot in a market dominated by big corporations and powerful players and therefore we needed to present a disruptive value proposition.
GSM: Let’s talk about GNSS and the innovative services that various stakeholders such as Sapcorda the European consortium and others are promoting globally. The target seems to be the future automotive market, but immediately also all the other augmentation services. Rokubun is already among the leading companies in Europe, and it is not a coincidence that it is mentioned in the latest GSA GNSS User Technology Report 2020. In this context, can you tell us closely the scope of innovative services such as JASON and the support solutions for customers and end-users of the new generation GNSS technologies?
Xavier B.C. – According to the last GSA GNSS Market Report 2019 the growth of the GNSS business in the following years is going to be mainly driven by mass-market, mid-end devices, and augmentation services. This seems to suggest that the GNSS market is putting the focus on business segments involving a massive user-base that cannot afford traditional high-end GNSS equipment (like the ones used in topography or geodesy), but are in need of a performance level that is not typically achieved by stand-alone lower-end solutions. The combination of GNSS low-end or mid-end devices and augmentation services might be the key to provide those business segments with high-performance scalable navigation solutions at affordable costs. This is essentially Rokubun’s business hypothesis that resulted in the concept of Positioning-as-a-Service (PaaS) giving birth to JASON: our GNSS cloud service for precise navigation. JASON is a post-facto service, based on PPK (Post-Processing Kinematics) and PPP (Precise Point Positioning) processing strategies, well suited for those applications in need of precise navigation information not requiring real-time.
Along with Rokubun, there is a set of GNSS companies and startups that seem to be on the same page concerning their business approaches, based on navigation services provision. To put some examples, Sapcorda in Europe or Swift Navigation in the USA both propose precise navigation real-time correction services oriented to applications with a massive number of users using mid or low-end GNSS devices (automotive, IoT, drones…). This might be a sign that there is indeed a new navigation business to be explored in this direction.
GSM – Positioning services on the cloud (PaaS) are a newborn reality, and ROKUBUN seems to be ready at the starting line with the release of the JASON platform. Can you briefly tell us about the characteristics of the services, the purposes, and the benefits of a cloud platform that users will be able to access?
Xavier B.C.– JASON is a GNSS cloud-based processing service aiming at providing users with accurate navigation or geolocation information at an affordable price and ease of use. All the user needs to do is upload the GNSS campaign observations and let Jason take the hassle of automatically choosing and fetching nearby base station data, needed corrections, orbits and clocks… Our service is oriented to those use cases involving mid or low-end GNSS receivers, able to gather GNSS observations, with operators that are not necessarily acquainted with GNSS technology. Without any specific GNSS expertise, JASON users can get the best possible performance out of their GNSS equipment. The cloud service configuration offers the extra advantage for the users of not having special installation nor updates requirements, but just an internet browser. JASON is a PPK-PPP service that relies on a database of more than 5000 GNSS CORS worldwide to provide users with precise geolocation solutions. Additionally, for those cases that are outside the coverage of our CORS database, JASON allows users to upload their own base station along with the rover data. In the near future, Jason will include as well valuable add-ons such as camera events vs. image synchronization for accurate geolocation and timestamping of images tailored for drone photogrammetry applications. The service is going to have a freemium scheme, with a monthly usage free tier and a pay-per-use pricing policy above this tier. Furthermore, there is going to be a monthly subscription option for those customers intensively using the service.
GSM – The European and international scenery seems to be proceeding with great strides towards RTK, PPK, and other services. The automotive world, driven by the solutions of HERE HD GNSS Positioning, seems to give a direction to GNSS technology in wide scenarios. Several European projects such as GISCAD-OV are bringing together the best of companies in the sector, in order to give a solid future to European positioning services. How does ROKUBUN present itself in these rapidly changing scenarios, while offering good growth opportunities for European companies?
Xavier B.C. – Rokubun will definitely surf these new business opportunities in GNSS. Our understanding of the GNSS market considers two main verticals that have to be taken into account: automotive as the principal present segment, which concentrates more than 50% of the annual GNSS business, and expected to grow with the arrival of automated driving vehicles, and Location Based Services (LBS) or smartphones as the most promising future segment, which today already represents more than 30% of the annual GNSS business and is expected to experience a dramatic growth with the arrival of precise navigation for smartphones.
At Rokubun we are constantly working to shape the future navigation solutions that have to enable precise navigation for the mass-market. According to GSA, the 4 pillars that are driving innovation in GNSS are: Accuracy, Security, Connectivity, and Ubiquity. Rokubun is currently working on a couple of GSA-funded R&D projects that address those topics with the goal of developing operational solutions that will positively impact the 2 main navigation business verticals: automotive and LBS. Specifically, we are working to break the scalability constraints of RTK navigation or to provide accurate and seamless outdoor-indoor navigation in urban environments among other technical challenges. Rokubun’s R&D activity is market-driven, with a strong focus on identifying market needs that trigger the development of our future solutions. Rokubun intends to be offering innovative operational solutions for accurate and ubiquitous navigation for mass-market verticals in a couple of years.
GSM – One last question, which is also a bit of a curiosity, it’s about the operational context in which innovative companies grow. And the companies that deal with GNSS and innovation seem quite widespread in Catalunya. Can you tell us about the institutional support in Catalunya for innovative companies like ROKUBUN?
Xavier B.C. – First of all, Catalunya has had historically a wide entrepreneurial tradition, being one of the main economic engines of Spain. Catalunya and especially Barcelona are rising as the best startup ecosystem in South Europe. In 2019 Barcelona was the 3rd most popular city among startup founders in Europe, and ranks 5th as a European hub. This is not casual: during the last decade, a set of ingredients have been put together both from public and private initiatives to make this happen. Today we have an outstanding combination of powerful universities and research centers generating a flow of talented people and know-how, solid startups investment ecosystem, and public bodies committed to promote and foster entrepreneurship. Adding the Barcelona natural attraction on top of this formula gives as a result an entrepreneurial hub able to generate and attract powerful, innovative, and disruptive business projects. All in all, during the last decade, a genuine startup culture has been consolidated in Barcelona and Catalunya, putting in place synchronously all the necessary ingredients. Catalan institutions seem to start understanding that the future of a sustainable economy relies on the capacity to generate high added value proposals. An example of this that impacts space technology-related startups, that have popped up in the Barcelona area with special intensity during the last 5 years, is the Catalan Government initiative to foster the NewSpace Economy. Rokubun has grown within this entrepreneurship environment, leveraging the facilities that this ecosystem provides.
 NewSpace Strategy for Catalonia
- https://www.rokubun.cat/- il web di ROKUBUN.
- https://jason.rokubun.cat/ link al servizio JASON.
european-gnss/gnss-market/ gnss-user-technology-report- Il Market Report dell’Agenzia Europea di Galileo
- https://giscad-ov.eu – L’innovativo progetto europeo per l’innovazione GNSS per il segmento catasto e non solo. Il progetto ha come project leader GEOWEB s.p.a e SOGEI, ed un parterre di aziende specializzate in servizi High End per il positioning nel segmento GNSS per le applcazioni di precisione.
- https://www.reseau-teria.com – Una delle aziende francesi che partecipano al progetto GISCAD-OV, e che ha sviluppato una ampia rete internazionale di servizi di positioning basati sul GNSS.
newsroom/news/precise-point- positioning-opens-new- possibilities-mass-market- applications – Il primo servizio HD GNSS promosso da Here nel mercato globale del positioning di precisione per l’automotive.
Intervista a cura di Domenico Santarsiero