Debate crackles at #Locate19 space and spatial capability panel

By on 24 April, 2019

A robust discussion on Australia’s future in space and the spatial industry’s interests revealed a new set of dynamics in Australia’s relationship with the extraterrestrial.

On day two of #Locate19, FrontierSI hosted a panel discussion on Australia’s space and spatial capability.

Moderated by Eva Rodriguez, the panel hosted Michelle Gee, director of the Sir Lawrence Wackett Aerospace Research Centre at RMIT and formerly of Boeing, Aude Vignelles, executive director of program and capability at the Australian Space Agency, Ross Caldow of HERE technologies and Julia Mitchell, SBAS test bed program manager for FrontierSI.

Rodriguez kicked off the conversation by addressing the elephant in the room right off the bat — what does the Australian Space Agency mean for Australia?

As the ASA representative, Aude responded with some background — Australia has already had a storied history in space — and just because we haven’t had agency doesn’t  that we haven’t achieved, citing Australia’s critical role in relaying the first images from Apollo, rocket testing at Woomera, and long standing cooperation between universities, European agencies and NASA.

Vignelles remarked that the interesting thing about “coming to the party so late” is the need to be different, noting that access to space has now been somewhat democratised relative to the era of access only by mammoth state agencies. She commented that the agency has researched “what space needs to be in the near future”, and associated capabilities required – space situational awareness, operational robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.

She held that as a small country, we can’t act alone, and the agency is seeking to find a objectives common to all of these sectors that makes sense within their operational mandate, citing operational robotics an example of Australian capability – “we are good with mining, what can we export?”

Citing the Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019-2028 launched the week prior, Aude set out engagement as a key focus — looking to inspire tomorrow’s workforce, and the need to regulate the sector as another key priority.

Eva threw to Julia, prompting her to reflect on lessons learned from SBAS test bed. Mitchell responded that the core take-away was that every user’s needs are different, sometimes vastly so — from tags on cows to integration into an automated driving system — and that knowing all the different use cases is one of the key challenges to maximising utility of an SBAS, but also the challenge of communications on a continent as vast as Australia.

The next question to the panel threw down the gauntlet — who is going to solve these communication problems? The NBN, small satellites, IoT solutions – who are the players and what are the roles?

Vignelles chimed in quickly: “If there is a use case and a need somewhere, I need to make sure that we help. We can see markets exist, there is a need and we are going to need to invest in infrastructure, for example ground infrastructure for communications.”

Mitchell predicted that three or four companies will be looking to create constellations of hundreds of satellites in the next few years, and will likely bring down the cost of machine-to-machine communications for users significantly.

Ross Caldow brought his perspective from the autonomous vehicle space — this area is key. “The connectedness of this space is the real story, not self driving cars,” he said.

“The telcos, and everyone else think they have the solution for this — but we have forgotten rural areas and need to look at solutions beyond urban environments.”

Caldow added that the autonomous transport industry is now looking at other methods of positioning to account for this challenge, such as building referential technologies that are already in a high definition map — solutions that are independent of space infrastructure.

Shifting emphasis slightly, the next question remained focused on Australia’s unique geographic challenges — how does such a small team like the space agency set priorities for such communication needs across Australia?

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Michelle Gee suggested that approaching the problem only in terms of satellites would be thinking narrowly about the problem. “There are other technologies that can be leveraged to meet business needs for remote communication more cheaply, effectively and rapidly,” she said, citing pseudosatellites like the Airbus Zephyr, or Thales Alenia Space Stratobus, that can carry half a ton of payload, but can be “folded up and put on the back of a truck.”

Gee pointed out that this technology can be deployed very rapidly, at the point of care for emergency and disaster response, for example, and that the capability gaps in currently utilised communication technologies are remote environments, and accurate environments in different terrains – there are vast black spots in this country for accurate positioning and reliable communication links.

Vignelles interjected that the ASA’s mission is to make sure every Australian benefits from investment in technology, not doing things for the sake of  them, or for narrow interests, such as those of defence.

“We must tick all these boxes and we need to be safe,” she said, citing the need for accurate space situational awareness. “Nobody will be launching any rockets  if we have too many objects in orbit,” she said.

Gee pointed out the extent to which we will rely on overseas launch infrastructure to loft Australian payloads to orbit for the foreseeable future, igniting a fascinating debate.

An opinionated attendee with detailed industry knowledge chimed in: “We can scale and we will need to do it ourselves. The business opportunities exist and are huge,” he said.

He added that the ‘Space 2.0’ tag for the new era of commercialised, accessible orbit is a misnomer, as this era as it benefits the legacy organisations too, providing the example that DigitalGlobe will launch an entire new constellation of nanosatellites for less than the cost of WorldView 4, its now-defunct imaging satellite.

Other points raised were that pseudosats were brilliant for event-based situations, e.g. impending disasters, but can’t compare to some satellite capabilities – e.g. pseudosats could get shot out of the sky in many operational theatres, and that the situational threats posed by nano, pico and other small satellites don’t compare to the behemoth satellites of old, as they “deteriorate every 18 months.”

A suggestion was raised around space law and ethics – if providers had to take responsibility for decommissioning or ‘bringing down’ their satellites, it would inform their design going forward — with entirely different considerations for a 400 kilogram satellite than for one weighing 10.

Shifting gears, Gee suggested that universities can be leveraged much more effectively by industry, that the traditional ‘British’ structure of Australian academic institutions informs R&D programs aimed at academic KPIs — related to publications, citations and student graduations, not industry based objectives.

She put forward that these programs should  better support Australian companies, not so much the large multinationals, which tend to be favoured in industry/academic partnerships — such as space startups and a large number of SMEs across the value chain that could be better supported as they lack the people and money to do what they’re trying to do. Programs such as  PhDs aligned with the needs of a startup or SME could assist in this area.

Mitchell cited multiple honours students involved in the SBAS test bed, asking what the harm is for Australian students to be embedded with large multinational corporations, to which Gee replied that “It’s not a bad thing per se, but jobs go overseas.”

When the question of what should be done to better leverage research and partnerships was put to Caldow, he said that HERE may be as guilty as anyone for expertise going overseas, but they often look to the Australian market to develop and launch products. He put the call out to startups and SMEs to step up and quantify the level of outcomes they are looking to achieve.

Rounding out an action-packed discussion, Eva fired two questions at the panel — what will change in the spatial industry over the next five years, and when will we see local launch?

Mitchell jumped in, saying “We are going to convince people that spatial and space massively overlap – not all spatial is space, but a lot of what spatial does uses space-derived products, and therefore is inseparable from space — we want to create a unified space and spatial industry, a connected space supply chain.”

Vignelles responded with a strong indication of the ASA’s mandate as a regulatory body, and the limits of its resourcing. “There are 421 spaceports in the pipeline worldwide. We could like access to all orbits, not just equatorial or geostationary.”

“Where is the business case and scalability – are we doing things just because we think it’s good to do them? Our responsibility is to make sure we need to do things, and do them safely when we do — we are a regulator. If we have a launch base here, it’s going to be a safe launch base that complies with all regulation.”

Caldow jumped in: “I’m more focused on outcomes, to answer the question will consumers have a better life in 5 years as a result of which advancements? Most of those will likely be from OS initiatives and developments, how could we contribute to that?”

Gee pointed out that a large number of Australian companies are developing access to space technologies now, with convincing business cases and different technologies mixes. “Will they get there in five years? Absolutely not,” she said.

Vignelles said: “I’m looking at where we want to be in 50 years’ time, and what do we need to do today to get there.”

Brushing aside the suggestion that Australia is a risk averse nation, she said: “We wouldn’t have an agency if we were truly risk averse. A lot has changed in two years’ time – everyone is talking about space now. ”

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