Q&A with Anthony Murfett

By on 19 December, 2018

One of the most significant events of the year was the announcement, funding and formation the Australian Space Agency.

Last week, the Prime Minister announced that the agency will be based in Adelaide, a windfall for the state and its rapidly-evolving ecosystem of space-reliant businesses, high tech manufacturing and R&D capability. Here we publish a detailed interview with Anthony Murfett, the ASA’s deputy head, conducted soon after the agency’s formation in June. This piece was originally published in issue 97, the October/November edition of Position magazine.

Position: Anthony, firstly — congratulations on the agency’s establishment and your position within it — I’m sure it’s been a busy few months at your end. My understanding is that the agency’s charter, a significant document in terms of the agency’s operations and interactions with respect to other government agencies and the private sector, is in the process of being finalised. Can you update us on this process — how does the final document differ from the charter proposed by the review, and what are the next steps following its finalisation?

AM: The first nine weeks of the Australian Space Agency’s (the agency’s) establishment has most certainly been a fast, exciting and dynamic time. The level of interest and engagement not just from the industry, but the broader Australian and international community have been amazing. In the first nine weeks of the agency’s establishment, we have managed a cumulative audience – those that have heard, read or seen information on the agency – of over 18.7 million.

At this time, the agency charter is in the final stages of development. The government noted the charter developed by the Expert Reference Group (ERG), led by our (now) Head of the agency, Dr. Megan Clark AC. It asked the agency to finalise the Charter within three months of establishment, drawing on the information in the charter prepared by the ERG. We’ve spent our first couple of months engaging across Australia to confirm our role and where we can add the most value, which has been used to inform the development of the charter. I expect that the final charter will reflect our governance arrangements, our purpose and responsibilities, and also a framework for how we will engage with the industry to deliver on our purpose: to transform and grow a globally respected Australian space industry that lifts the broader economy, inspires and improves the lives of Australians – underpinned by strong international and national engagement.

Anthony Murfett with the Macquarie University Orbital team at the 2018 Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney.

PositionThe state and territory consultative forums with industry have now wound up. I’d imagine there was a range of stakeholders with strong views in each region, and that it was a stimulating affair. What are your main take-aways from this process, and has it functionally changed any precepts you’ve had of the agency’s mandate, or initial activities?

AM: In establishing the agency, the government requested we develop an investment plan to identify investment opportunities for Australia. In recognising this important requirement and an industry that was keenly interested to engage early, the agency set up consultation across all capital cities in the states and territories. The agency also established a number of priority-area specific roundtables.

Over 750 participants registered for these events. This included representation from the traditional space sector, as well as broader industries like mining, precision agriculture, investment organisations, amateur space enthusiast clubs, consulting and STEM-related organisations.

We had great engagement and a couple of key themes were revealed or reinforced:

  • the agency has a key role in outlining how space technology touches virtually every sector of the Australian economy. For example, Australian farmers use space capabilities to monitor the health of their crops, marine pilots guide cruise liners, emergency workers track the progress of bushfires, and scientists study the effects and impact of droughts. By highlighting these broader uses we’ll be able to capture a significant part of the global space economy (currently $346B USD and growing);
  • international engagement with counterpart agencies will help identify new opportunities to grow our industry;
  • there is great capability across our great nation; and
  • with the enthusiasm within the space sector, we need to ensure we work closely with the industry so we encourage growth, but at the same time ensure public safety and security. This will mean we’ll be seen as globally responsible and also meet our international obligations (for example under the Outer Space Treaty).

The discussions also highlighted the importance of STEM in driving the economy; the need to grow and nurture start-ups and SMEs; investment in supporting ground infrastructure; setting the strategy and policy for the Agency early; and the vital need for a single voice to represent the Australian space industry both domestically and internationally.

The agency also heard stronger commercial interests in launch, an element which did not come through as a significant priority during ERG review.

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PositionA large allocation of the agency’s initial funding appears to be dedicated to fast-tracking partnerships and bolstering existing agreements with international space agencies — presumably to assist in getting Australian payloads onto missions launched internationally while Australia’s own launch infrastructure is developed and the agency’s mandate structurally established. What will this look like in practical terms — what can Australian space-reliant businesses expect as concrete outcomes from these activities, and how might they engage with the agency to benefit from these in the immediate term?

AM: The agency is currently engaging with several international space agencies across a number of space related areas. This includes Canada, the European Space Agency, France (through CNES), the UK and the US, to name but a few. The agency is very excited that we signed our first Memorandum of Understanding with the French Space Agency (CNES) on the 1st of September when we were in our eighth week.

One of our primary purposes is to help connect space with the ‘broader economy’ and so these arrangements will set the overarching framework for Australian companies and universities in the materials, telecommunications, manufacturing, artificial intelligence (AI), medicines, sensors and health and biotech sectors to plug into the fantastic opportunities associated with supplying commercial product and services to orbital and planetary missions including human space flight and exploration. Some tangible examples could include Australian technology (such as AI) on new satellites, businesses being able to provide components for new space infrastructure developed overseas, as well as our researchers working together on new technologies such as laser communications.

While the need for launch infrastructure wasn’t identified as a priority during the ERG review, space actors have increasingly expressed interest in Australia’s launch capabilities since we established the agency. It is a matter for industry to determine whether launch capability is a sustainable commercial opportunity in Australia. The agency will review the regulatory requirements for launch facilities as it develops rules under the Space Activities Amendment (Launches and Returns) Act 2018.

The Governor General’s rocket design challenge at National Science Week 2018.

Position: The 2018 budget had a range of exciting allocations for Australian positioning infrastructure, both space- and ground-based. How do you see the role of the agency in terms of interfacing with Geoscience Australia’s positioning initiatives, and the potential of GNSS services for Australia’s economy?

Firstly on Geoscience Australia’s investments. As part of the 2018-19 federal budget, the Australian government invested $224.9 million over the next four years to develop and implement a world-leading satellite positioning capability in Australia. This capability will provide near real-time location information that is accurate to 10 centimetres nationally (and across Australia’s maritime borders) and 3 cm in areas with mobile phone coverage. This will be exponentially better than what is currently available from GPS location information, which provides an accuracy of five to ten metres.

This step change in technology will be transformative for Australian society, for businesses and industries, and our international competitiveness: from precision agriculture and agtech, to regional aviation, automation in mining and resources, intelligent transport, and consumer location services and deliveries.

The Positioning Australia Program comprises the provision of a Satellite-Based Augmentation System (SBAS) at an investment of $161 million over four years and the construction of a National Positioning Infrastructure Capability (NPIC) at an investment of $64 million. We expect construction for the NPIC will begin in the next few months. This work is being managed through Geoscience Australia.

The government’s current investment in SBAS follows a pilot study of the technology across Australia and New Zealand, which began in 2017 and is expected to end in February 2019. The pilot, which is testing the technology across ten industry sectors, used a world-first Inmarsat satellite to test an SBAS service at the 10 centimetre accuracy level, with strong immediate benefits evident to a number of industries, particularly those of transport. The Commonwealth has extended its exclusive use of this Inmarsat satellite until 31 January 2024, thereby ensuring, in the short-term, that Australians remain the only users of this kind of technology, until a long term SBAS capability can be procured.

With regard to our interface with Geoscience Australia, the agency has been working closely with Geoscience Australia on its exciting work in the space sector. Importantly, the agency will focus on setting national priorities, strategy and policy in collaboration with organisations like Geoscience Australia. We will also provide one voice and one door internationally for Australia, so we can support the great work of Geoscience Australia through opening up new opportunities overseas.

Position: The review strongly recommended that the agency be a whole-of-government agency, yet the government has held off on committing to granting it statutory status [please clarify if I misunderstand here]. How do you see the agency’s role in working with other departments on investment and procurement priorities before this status is granted? Might this mimic the operation of the with the Business Research and Innovation Initiative for these functions?

AM: There is recognition that the agency has an ambitious agenda and that we need to work closely with other government space-related organisations. The ERG recommended that coordination was essential and the agency should provide a one-door and one-voice approach. At the federal level, for example, this will be achieved through a space coordination committee of relevant agencies and organisations.

The agency is established as a separate non-statutory entity within the Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, but has independent branding and governance arrangements. It allows the agency to draw on the department for support, particularly corporate support. The government response also outlined that consideration of a statutory basis will be considered after a review of the agency’s operations that will commence within four years of the establishment of the agency.

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