Sustainable innovation – the commercial future of the British space sector

Innovation News Network’s digital editor, Caitlin Magee, spoke to Daniel Smith, the creative director and founder of AstroAgency, about the future of the British space sector.

The British space sector has trebled in size since 2000, contributing to 5.1% of the global space market. Between 2016 and 2017, the sector generated £5.5bn in exports of British space technologies and materials. According to the UK Government’s Department for International Trade, the UK plans to capture 10% of the global space market by 2030 and offer investors a major opportunity to grow their business.

The Scottish-based space consultancy firm, AstroAgency, helps British innovators enter the space sector by offering it expertise in space funding acquisition, marketing, licensing, and regulation. Innovation News Network spoke to the founder and creative director of AstroAgency, Daniel Smith, about the future of the British space sector and the commercialisation of space technologies.

What are the main challenges facing innovators in the British space sector?

The fundamental challenge facing space innovation is that space is difficult — it’s a challenging, technically demanding environment with little margin for error. However, this challenge isn’t insurmountable, and there are plenty of ways to innovate in space without being a rocket scientist! Some of the UK’s most innovative space companies work in the downstream sector, transforming space data into valuable insights for business, or for contributing to the climate change fight and other far-reaching and immensely worthwhile causes. And if you have the technical know-how to contribute to this area, or tackle the challenge of sustainable launch or manufacture of satellites or anything else in the value chain, there are agencies like Innovate UK and the UK Space Agency which can support your idea in a variety of ways.

And having said that space is technically challenging, the UK hosts companies like Responsive Access and OpenCosmos, which help in different ways to make space accessible to all by providing “off-the-shelf” satellite launch and mission management services. So, whatever your space innovation is or your need for space data, there’s a way of making it a reality in the UK.

In Scotland, where AstroAgency is headquartered, there are some excellent initiatives from government agencies such as Scottish Enterprise to continue to support innovation, even during the current climate, and this is the case throughout the wider UK, too. Ultimately, innovation in all forms has the potential to play such a positive role in the economy. When you factor in the benefits of STEM technology as an inspiration to young people, innovation simply has to be encouraged, no matter what society has to battle through. The UK certainly recognises that.

British space sector
© iStock/NicoElNino/Inok

How will the commercialisation of the space sector influence the birth of new technologies?

The ‘NewSpace’ era has all kinds of benefits. With the space sector supply chain genuinely open for all, private investment and entrepreneurism has created an opportunity for anyone to bring ideas and innovation into the sector. This not only benefits the space industry, but every other industry too. Not only can space innovation be transferred as spin-off technologies, but satellite data can also be used to inform a variety of areas, from agriculture, forestry, transportation, town planning, and shipping through to playing a key role in monitoring the Earth’s climate and pollution levels.

The new accessibility of space has already resulted in unprecedented technology innovation — not only from big-name brands like SpaceX with their reusable rockets. Here in the UK Oxford Space Systems are creating innovative new deployable structures for spacecraft, Skyrora are crafting rockets fuelled by unrecyclable plastic to supply small satellite manufacturers with low cost access to space, and OceanMind are using satellite data to monitor illegal fishing across the world’s oceans. This wave of innovation can benefit the economy too — Glasgow-based Trade in Space uses satellite imagery to predict crop yields and inform financial markets.

NewSpace is all about taking an agile, dynamic approach to what is naturally a vibrant sector, but has always been held back due to the traditional approach to space. Innovation is crucial throughout the supply chain and the modern era will enable a host of new approaches to support and increase access to space in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

British space sector
© iStock/Mikhail Shapovalov

What sets the British space industry apart from other countries in the sector?

Throughout the UK we have a long history of innovation, from the aerospace heritage in Northern Ireland and Wales through to the engineering, bioscience, technology firms and inventors in Scotland and England. This capability is a good foundation for the kind of work that is needed to support the fast-growing space sector. When you add in strong government support for commercial space, world-class universities and the UK’s ability to service the full value chain, it becomes a comprehensive offering. The latter, in particular, is interesting, as the UK can cater for both upstream and downstream activities. Geography means that the UK can conveniently cover the launch of locally built satellites and launch vehicles, as well as offering data downlink capabilities in locations such as Goonhilly in Cornwall and centres in Edinburgh and Oxfordshire which process and analyse this data. With an openness for international collaboration through initiatives like the Space Bridge and recent Technology Safeguards Agreement with the USA, it does feel like the UK can play a key, collaborative role in the NewSpace movement.

What are some of the leading space technologies to be produced in Britain?

I’d highlight innovations such as the move towards more eco-friendly propellant combinations from launch companies in Scotland, as well as cleaner and greener engines from Reaction Engines in Oxfordshire. These technologies are incredibly important in helping to offset and reduce emissions from launch for environmental reasons, and the UK has an opportunity to lead the world on this engineering challenge.

The other exciting area where the UK leads the world is in the manufacture of small satellites, with SSTL in Surrey (who largely pioneered the genre of small satellites) and both ClydeSpace and Spire Global in Glasgow, as well as a host of companies in the UK manufacturing supply chain. The miniaturisation of payloads is an area where the UK really produces some very technically smart technology.

The most exciting for me personally are the benefits to the environment that are currently derived from space data. Being able to use space to monitor and protect the environment is perhaps the most important of all benefits from earth observation capability, and the more we move towards launching Earth-monitoring payloads into space in a responsible, sustainable way, the better. The technologies used to analyse the data from these satellites are software-based and use cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence algorithms to derive solutions in a more cost-effective and faster way. Companies such as Global Surface Intelligence, 4 Earth Intelligence, Omanos Analytics and Ecometrica lead the field here.

Finally, there’s some interesting work being done around the use of space for security applications, such as the quantum key distribution satellite developments via companies like Glasgow’s Craft Prospect. It’s an area that I’m keen to learn more about and is clearly very cutting-edge, even for space tech!

British space sector
© iStock/tonystamp11/alexsl

Should innovators expect a rise in funding opportunities for space related projects?

The pandemic has hit public funding across the board as the government and its agencies focus on how to overcome the challenges faced by COVID-19. However, with the benefits that low-cost access to space brings across so many industries as mentioned earlier, I strongly believe that there will still be funding for space innovation as it can play a huge role in enabling growth and, indeed, helping us bounce back to economic growth after such a challenging time.

As far as private investment is concerned, all I can say from my own experience in liaising with the investment community on behalf of a number of AstroAgency’s clients is that there remains a strong appetite to invest in space tech. Again, venture capital companies, angel investors and investment funds are all fully aware of the importance of space for bringing the economy back to a healthy state and see the various growth opportunities for the future.

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