Down to Earth men, far-out idea

Pioneering: Integral Systems invented an easy to use desktop system to control satellites. It also cost 10 times less than rival systems.

January 13, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The guys at Integral Systems Inc. had a great idea.

Instead of controlling satellites with bulky mainframes and mini-computers, like everyone else, they'd fly them with desktop computers. And instead of building custom-made systems each time a bird went into orbit - like everyone else - they'd make one generic system that could fly satellites from any manufacturer, in any orbit, on any mission. Anything.

Their control system would be easier to use, cheaper by a factor of 10, and people with satellites would be crazy to buy anything else. Chief Executive Officer Steven R. Chamberlain was thinking revolution even before the sales team left the building

There was just this problem, though: It was scientifically impossible.

That's what NASA and all the other potential customers kept saying, anyway.

"People thought it was preposterous, to the point of hostility," said Chamberlain, a physicist by training.

"We would make presentations, sometimes public presentations with lots of people there, and they would get furious. I think people thought we were scamming them. They just didn't believe it, didn't think it was possible. They do now."

Today, Integral Systems sells more ground control systems than any company in the world. It competes with Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and other beasts of the industry - and wins.

Seven years after it gave away the EPOCH 2000 control system to prove that it could work, the Lanham company controls half the commercial communications satellite market.

And next month the company could take a deep plunge into the military satellite market as well. Integral Systems is a finalist to build a new satellite control system for the Air Force - a $143 million contract that would be worth more than three times the company's annual revenue.

A win is no certainty for Integral Systems. The 250-employee operation in Prince George's County is up against a team composed of TRW Inc., L-3 Communications and Sun Microsystems Inc., all of them industry giants. And the Air Force has never bought the kind of commercial-style product that Integral Systems sells.

But the company has already beaten Lockheed Martin to get this far, and the Air Force is under pressure to cut costs and start buying commercial products. That combination could give Integral Systems a new segment of the business to take over.

Rosy future

"That Air Force contract could open a huge new market for them," said Wayne Lottinville, an analyst for RedChip Review . "But whatever happens, I think they're going to continue gaining customers and taking market share. I really don't have any doubt about that."

Integral Systems was founded 20 years ago by Chamberlain and three other satellite specialists who left OAO Corp. to form their own company.

In the early years they built or designed whatever type of satellite system or component their customers asked for. But as the federal budget started shrinking in the 1980s, the company decided to focus solely on one thing - the ground-based systems that communicate with satellites and tell them what to do.

Like TV remote control

The ground system is a vital component of a satellite network. It monitors orbits, orders satellites when to fire thrusters, sends and receives data and records information. An often-used analogy is a television remote control, only much larger, and with hundreds more buttons.

Integral Systems used to build control systems the same way everyone else did - custom-designing them for each satellite and using costly mainframe or mini-computers.

But in the late 1980s Chamberlain and a team of programmers and engineers decided to try designing a system to run on a desk-top computer that could be installed anywhere, with any fleet of satellites, without the need for custom programming.

It wasn't supposed to be possible. Small computers weren't powerful enough, and satellites weren't interchangeable enough. Some satellites didn't even speak the same electronic language.

Integral Systems' programmers avoided the problems by creating a generic shell to run on a desktop computer, then creating an outside database to feed in information about specific satellites.

The program itself used little of the computer's power, but the database could be large enough to hold specifications and parameters for every kind of commercial satellite manufactured. They called it EPOCH 2000.

"Steve saw that we were headed toward this era where everything was going to be smaller, faster and cheaper," said Russell E. Talcott, a fellow co-founder who left the company in the early 1990s. "He was sure it could be done, and he jumped on it before everyone else."

The product was introduced at a Washington trade conference in January 1992. The reaction was universal.

`Very negative'

"We got no reaction at all," Chamberlain said. "And when we finally did, it was all very negative."

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