Why we must reach for the stars and lead satel­lite race

PM should now back his own vow that UK will not miss out as space net­work crosses a new fron­tier ‘Some­times we need to take the first step, even when we don’t know what the last step will be. If we don’t, some­one else will’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business Comment - Stu­art martin

Low-earth or­bit­ing satel­lites – mega con­stel­la­tions as they are called – are the new tech­nol­ogy that will de­fine space in the 21st cen­tury. They will do for space what au­ton­o­mous cars will do for trans­port, and gene edit­ing for medicine. If the UK wishes to reap the “long-term strate­gic and com­mer­cial ben­e­fits” of space, as cited by Boris John­son in his very first speech as Prime Min­is­ter, then Bri­tain must take a stake. This new gen­er­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion satel­lites, or­bit­ing just a few hun­dred miles above the earth, will for the first time open up ev­ery cor­ner of the planet to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of high­speed broad­band and 5G.

The race to build out this new global in­fra­struc­ture is well un­der way, with UK-head­quar­tered OneWeb, along­side Elon Musk’s Star­Link net­work, be­ing the first out of the blocks.

So OneWeb’s en­try into Chap­ter 11 in March, fol­low­ing fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties at ma­jor in­vestor SoftBank, would seem like a ma­jor set­back. Ac­tu­ally, it is a huge op­por­tu­nity, and for the UK space sec­tor, it is a fork in the road.

We have a de­ci­sion to make. Ei­ther we stand by and watch, once again, the lead that the UK has es­tab­lished in a ground-break­ing tech­nol­ogy be ceded to other na­tions just at the point it starts to take off.

Or we dou­ble down to se­cure the UK’s po­si­tion at the heart of this tech­nol­ogy rev­o­lu­tion, and com­mit to lead­ing its ex­ploita­tion.

The 21st cen­tury will be the era of driver­less cars, robotic ships and au­ton­o­mous drones. This will not be pos­si­ble with­out the high-speed and truly ubiq­ui­tous com­mu­ni­ca­tions that only th­ese mega con­stel­la­tions can pro­vide. Avail­able over the oceans, the moun­tains, the deserts and in the forests, and in all places where hu­man needs will de­mand it, th­ese satel­lites will reach the places that 5G and other broad­band tech­nolo­gies will never get to. As a bonus, an in­vest­ment in OneWeb will give us the chance to solve the UK’s satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion co­nun­drum once and for all.

The UK’s ex­clu­sion from the EU’s Galileo pro­gramme after Brexit leaves us with­out a sov­er­eign GPS-like ca­pa­bil­ity, and the Gov­ern­ment has com­mit­ted to fill­ing that gap with a ded­i­cated UK sys­tem.

This would give us in­de­pen­dence from both the EU’s Galileo, and the US’s GPS, but costs have es­ca­lated to an es­ti­mated £5bn. Now more than ever, that feels a bit of a lux­ury.

A so­lu­tion built around OneWeb would be far more cost-ef­fec­tive be­cause the costs of the satel­lites, the launches of those satel­lites and the large parts of the ground sys­tems have al­ready been paid for by the com­mer­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions ven­ture.

This could sub­stan­tially re­duce the bill, mak­ing it af­ford­able again.

This would also of­fer some­thing new, which our al­lies want and value. A nav­i­ga­tion sig­nal through a high­power, high-fre­quency com­mu­ni­ca­tions chan­nel from low-earth or­bit would be unique (GPS and Galileo both op­er­ate from far higher or­bits, at far lower power and fre­quency) so will de­liver new lev­els of per­for­mance and re­silience.

Of course, this is new tech­nol­ogy and we don’t have all the an­swers. Tech­nol­ogy and de­sign de­ci­sions still need to be made, and there may be reg­u­la­tory hur­dles.

But to al­low th­ese is­sues to hold us up would be­lie the op­por­tu­nity be­fore us. We should be pre­pared to back the world-beat­ing ex­per­tise we have in this coun­try to make those choices, and to find those an­swers, in or­der to re­alise the prom­ise this tech­nol­ogy of­fers be­fore any­one else does.

Too of­ten we have spent too long analysing and de­bat­ing, so that we leave the door wide open to oth­ers.

This is es­pe­cially true in space. We were and are pi­o­neers of fridge-sized small satel­lites (through Sur­rey Satel­lites) and more re­cently the toaster-sized CubeSats (Clyde Space). But in both cases, we were too slow to recog­nise the po­ten­tial they of­fered, and so much of the com­mer­cial ben­e­fit of this tech is now be­ing re­alised over­seas, in com­pa­nies like Planet, Ke­pler and IceEye.

Even now we cel­e­brate the high level of ex­ports that both flag­ship com­pa­nies de­liver. Ex­ports are great, but wouldn’t it be so much bet­ter if we could se­cure the ben­e­fits of ex­ploita­tion, as well as man­u­fac­ture, here in the UK? Other coun­tries are tak­ing ad­van­tage of this world-beat­ing UK tech­nol­ogy, in a way that we our­selves are not.

New space tech is al­most al­ways trans­for­ma­tional, and the most valu­able ways to use it are not ob­vi­ous un­til the tech­nol­ogy is in place. GPS it­self was de­signed in the Eight­ies as a guid­ance tool for the mil­i­tary.

Who could have fore­seen at that time how we would now rely on it to time our fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions, or to tell us pre­cisely when our Ama­zon de­liv­ery is ar­riv­ing? Mega con­stel­la­tions, be­cause of their ex­tra power and flex­i­bil­ity, have even more po­ten­tial, and we are only just be­gin­ning to think about the ways they can be used to solve the chal­lenges of the fu­ture and re­spond to the op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Chances like this, to lead the con­struc­tion of an in­fra­struc­ture the whole world will come to rely on, do not come up of­ten. When they do, we need to re­act quickly and boldly, and not let a few ques­tion marks bind our hands. Let’s back our world-beat­ing space sci­en­tists, tech­nol­o­gists and busi­nesses to get this sys­tem built, and quickly, so that we can all start us­ing and ben­e­fit­ing from it ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion. Some­times we need to be will­ing to take the first step, even when we don’t know what the last step will be.

If we don’t, his­tory tells us that some­body else will. Stu­art Martin is chief ex­ec­u­tive of Satel­lite Ap­pli­ca­tions Cat­a­pult

A scale model of an Air­bus OneWeb satel­lite, which could help rev­o­lu­tionise com­mu­ni­ca­tions across the world

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.