In the last 20 years, the barriers to entry for emerging space technologies have been significantly reduced, opening up new scientific frontiers, from deep space exploration to advanced data gathering to beam back to Earth.
In the satellite subsector, this is the equivalent of transitioning from the huge mainframe computers of the 1950s to a modern-day PC. The level of evolution – and revolution – that we’ve seen since 2000 in particular is enabling a growing community of international organisations to harvest the first fruits of next-generation technological innovation.
A major shift in terms of the size and capabilities of new satellites is also driving other segments of the space industry. For example, if you look at the $37 billion satellite launch industry, data analytics and a variety of other activities are being drastically altered by the form factor (size) and world-changing capabilities of new satellite models.
Technological advancements are taking shape across every facet of the $300 billion space industry. Looking at satellite-related technologies specifically, there is a seemingly infinite number of cutting-edge applications currently under development that have the potential to change our world, from how we communicate to addressing global food security.
The space race
Take geostationary satellites, which historically had the lion’s share of commercial satellite operations and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, test, qualify and launch, yet were only practical for TV broadcasting.
Fast forward to 2019 and satellites are being launched that cost less than US$1 million to build and maybe another US$1-2 million to launch. This has opened up a number of niche areas ripe for commercialisation. In addition, we have a whole variety of new sensors and communications equipment that can be miniaturised and put on board, presenting an infinite number of innovative satellite capabilities.
One example is hyperspectral imaging, which is being used for applications as diverse as monitoring oilfield gas leaks to detecting crop health from outer space. The technology has become much more affordable, making it practical and accessible for even small companies with limited budgets and not only government organisations.
In simple terms, we are witnessing the worldwide democratisation of access to space technology and its many possible applications.
Sci-fi technology a reality
The development of such ground-breaking technologies has been both decades in the making and seen warp-speed growth. We stand on the shoulders of giants in terms of the work of all the scientists and researchers responsible for creating a baseline for the different technologies in play. This has significantly reduced the time it takes to develop our satellites, our rockets and our data analysis algorithms.
As an example, if we look at the small type CubeSat satellite, which has been in development since the late 1990s, it’s only now that we are seeing opportunities for commercialisation. But, thanks to the groundwork that’s already been done and the availability of contemporary design, analysis and manufacturing tools, this has dramatically reduced the go-to-market time for individual products.
And there are some incredibly exciting under-development projects out there.
One great pre-public example is the technology being developed by a US-based company to connect smart phones directly to satellites. This will allow our mobile devices to become satellite phones, pretty much with an unlimited range, which would mean an end to roaming charges.
In southeast Asia, a number of insurance companies are using satellite imagery to process insurance claims from smallholder farmers. This has the ability to reduce the risk of insurance fraud, which in turn means reduced premiums for everyone. In the long-term, it also saves insurance companies money as they don’t have to physically send a representative to check whether the farm actually exists or to assess insurance damage due to flooding, as they can simply review the satellite imagery instead.
Another type of technology that has huge potential is satellite aperture radars (SAR). These work regardless of bad weather or lack of light as they produce a high quality black and white scan of an area at any time. As a result, this can assist with traffic management at sea or in the air.
And addressing the aerospace sector specifically is an initiative to develop satellite-based radio communication with airliners over oceanic transfer routes. Currently, there are some gaps in reach due to communication capabilities being primarily terrestrial but this initiative aims to close these gaps.
Across the globe in both developing and developed countries, there are still huge swathes of land not connected by terrestrial communications. Using satellite technology, the deployment of IoT across huge expanses of farmland, for example, could be used to monitor crop health, with the ability to ‘see’ whether there are sufficient water levels. It would also enable direct and virtually instantaneous communication with headquarters’ or entities on every continent, which could also potentially assist with managing global food security programmes.
Beyond the final frontier
There are broad strokes opportunities for emerging space technologies across multiple industries. From our side, we are seeing a surge of interest in using satellite communications for data collection.
Agriculture tops the list as it’s a very simple and quick way to get information on a wide geographical area, with demand from Australia for example, where farms cover vast territories.
Logistics, which encompasses mining, oil and gas, and aerospace, is another key area of opportunity. Next-gen space satellite capabilities can even be used for urban traffic analysis, allowing municipalities and city authorities to measure the different traffic loads in cities without needing a lot of terrestrial measurement assistance. Similarly, governments in developing countries are eager to learn more about how they can optimise their own transportation systems with limited ground-based data.
Another extremely interesting area, and one that people often don’t consider when discussing the space realm, is data analytics, and how to make sense of the mountain of information that satellites generate – and translate this into meaningful usage.
I recently spoke with the GISTDA about their initiative which uses satellite data to measure the height of buildings around airports, to determine whether there are any structures that interfere with aeronautical safety. And that information comes directly from satellites.
Events like the Young Professionals in Space conference and competitions such as GITEX Future Stars and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) Innovation Challenge are offering startups like us incredible opportunities to grow and play a vital role in advancing space technology capabilities.
In our case, winning the MBRSC Innovation Challenge in 2018 allowed us to close the credibility gap when we were just a fledgling start-up. Endorsement from a highly regarded organisation such as MBRSC also positively affected our investability, and we closed some funding rounds soon afterwards.
Being able to meet and connect with the space industry on the ground also leads to new avenues of collaboration. From our perspective, we have some very interesting concepts under discussion with MBRSC, which were a direct result of being able to float ideas with the team.
There is a growing global community of nations and organisations keen to explore the potential of space technologies in order to ‘fix problems’ on Earth – and optimise available resources.
We also spoke with several African entities, for whom participation at global innovation events was the catalyst to think about how satellites could help them reduce agricultural waste and save money on logistics.
One of the biggest challenges in the coming decades will be the amount of space traffic and this will require international space agency co-operation. A hot topic of discussion at world-leading space events is the limited number of orbital slots and the question of how to ensure that all nations have fair access in the future.
And this is giving rise to new opportunities for space technologies. For example, there is a huge amount of space debris in orbit, and with more and more satellites out there, not all of them will be de-orbited in a controlled manner. So, how do you de-conflict this situation with countries that have want to launch new satellites and effectively manage the space debris situation?
UAE on a mission
Dubai and the UAE are at the forefront of technological innovation and not merely playing catch-up to established players with a track record in space exploration. The country is committed to its ambitious space programme. After all, once you have the tallest building on Earth, the natural next step is to look to space, and initiatives like the launch of KhalifaSat is one of them.
With Hazza Al Mansoori the first Emirati astronaut to visit the International Space Station, this is a huge achievement for a country that’s fairly fresh in the game. And the Emirates Mars Mission will get underway next summer with the launch of the Hope spacecraft.
The value of existing UAE space-related investment is already at almost $5.5 billion, and this is helping to establish the Emirates as a major global hub for space science and technology, through investing in building capabilities and creating a scientific, legislative and financing environment that is stimulating and attractive for space projects. With some very exciting developments to come, the UAE space programme is one to watch.