TechWatch: Outer space is a new frontier for companies large and small

  • I recently sat down with Robert Hill, Director of the Northern Ireland Space Office, to find out more about the opportunities for NI in space.

    Q: Why is there a Space Office here?

    Robert Hill: “If you go back 15 years ago there was no real entry point for companies in NI to get into space. It’s only recently that space has changed – and it’s been an entire paradigm shift – away from large government institution projects that could extend into the billions, lending opportunities to larger companies such as Airbus and Lockheed Martin.

    “The new space agenda has shifted. Virgin Galactic – Blue Origin – SpaceX – these are private organisations. The supply chain is different. There used to be long procurement cycles, because it was in the public sector, plus you needed heritage to get in. In short, you needed to be in space to get a contract in space.

    “Access to space is getting much easier. Launch vehicles are getting smaller, and they can carry multiple satellite. Satellites are becoming more capable in smaller packages.

    “Sensors and cameras are also getting more capable – so satellites are smaller, cheaper to build and lighter. You can send up constellations of satellites working together as a cluster.

    “The part that’s really exciting is the downstream data from space. The sensors and technology in satellites are all creating data – which can augment with all the data sources around you. This has applications in agriculture, airplanes, phones, buses – space data is just another source of data and it’s useful for many industries.”

    Q: How has that changed the picture of funding?

    “In the last two years there has been more VC money in space than in the last 15 years put together. There’s a real opportunity here to commerialise space.”

    Q: How has the government responded to this paradigm shift?

    “The UK space agency recognises this, and so in NI we had to be aligned with what the UK is doing. We created a Northern Ireland Space Strategy – and there is an updated capabilities brochure being redeveloped now.

    “The message is that aerospace, defense, cyber security and data analytics companies can all get involved.

    “Because we have the likes of Thales here, the tier ones are starting to look at NI because of our strong heritage in aerospace, defense and data analytics.

    “Our main route to make that happen regionally has been through Invest NI.”

    Q: Can you give an example of a real company involved in space right now?

    “I’m currently working with First Derivatives’ and the Kx technology stack. We’re looking into what it can do for space, and there’s a bright future there. Kx takes lots of data from multiple sources and gives you insight into that data – so the applications in space are obvious.

    “This is an example of a company with no space heritage 28 months ago, that’s now collaborating with NASA and ESA.”

    Q: What else is happening in the space sector?

    “Space debris is a big problem. The spectrum is getting crowded – we are looking at how to remove that debris. It’s not like the old days, now everything that goes up needs a de-orbit policy. Some satellites are built to decay after a certain time and they burn up in the atmosphere.

    “It’s a big data analytics challenge to track all of the debris in space.”

    Q: What would you say to a company wanting to get involved with space?

    “Space is a real, realistic, defined, commercial opportunity. Stop thinking that space is something somebody else does – it’s something you can be a part of.

    “Start off by thinking about the user need – then look at whether there are satellite applications that you can be used to augment your solution.

    “And make sure to contact Invest NI, Digital Catapult NI, and also ring the Space Office. We now have a regional ambassador here named Dr Pamela Anderson as well, and she’s happy to be contacted.

    “Also Pamela Anderson (our new European Space Agency Business Applications Platform Ambassador for Northern Ireland and Scotland) is hosting a launch event in Belfast on 11th June titled 'Your Business Powered by Space' – so please sign up and join us.”


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