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Future-Proofing Transport: How Can Space Help?

Michael Gould
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Robust transportation infrastructures have always been critical to the movement of people, goods and services between national and international jurisdictions, yet, in an era of heightened globalisations, transport links are more important than ever. As public demand increases, smart public sector investment is key to maintain the efficiency that is expected of the transportation industry. Our Intelligent Transport team aims to help authorities make the decisions that advance innovation and maximise infrastructural potential, advocating satellite-based solutions to Earth-bound problems which have positively disruptive effects on public life.

Utilising a range of satellite technologies including navigation, Earth Observation (EO) imagery and communications, the transport team is realising this aim by exploring ideas related to connected infrastructure and intelligent mobility. We are asking whether different transportation settings such as asset-monitoring, freight, rail connectivity and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) could better exploit the benefits that space technologies have to offer.

Intelligent Asset-Monitoring

Bridges are critical infrastructures; not only do they increase urban mobility, but they also facilitate economic prosperity between regions by increasing the trading opportunities available. Unfortunately, the failure of these critical infrastructures is often catastrophic, and large gaps between physical inspections can result in acute structural abnormalities not being spotted for up to two years. Some deformations are even invisible to the eye and require more advanced analysis to locate problems – an expensive and time-consuming effort. To alleviate the problem, the ‘BRIGITAL’ project was set up as a decision-support tool for asset maintenance decision makers. Using SAR (synthetic-aperture radar), ground sensor and inspection data to display the displacement of bridge infrastructure in real-time, BRIGITAL can both pre-empt catastrophic failures and focus public authority remedial action on the weakest structures most at risk of failure. Thus, BRIGITAL acts as an important early warning system for local councils and bridge maintenance providers and lessens the burden on public authority inspection with a more focused, efficient and non-disruptive solution.

Further, the Catapult is working with Network Rail to investigate the connectivity of rail-side assets. Using a combination of satellite and 5G connectivity for seamless communications, the aim is to enhance worker safety and operational efficiency thorough the adoption of self-reporting assets which communicate with rail management and other assets, should a deficiency be spotted. Space data and connectivity hence provide tangible benefits for asset management; benefits which may be extrapolated into most national and international transportation industries.  

Smart Ports

Ports are fundamental to the success of a trading nation. 95% of goods are received in the UK through its ports and they directly provide £1.7 billion of growth into the UK economy. However, freight loads are increasing, and smarter ways of working are necessary in order to alleviate the burden on port infrastructure. Furthermore, most UK ports are still relying on outdated means to steer ships, collect fuel samples and transport cargo to and from the vessels.

The Catapult’s transport team has therefore been working to support the digitalisation of port infrastructure whilst promoting the use of satellite technologies. This might include the autonomation of vessels to stop the unnecessary annual deaths that occur from pilots boarding in unsafe conditions, the automation of cranes, and enhanced communication capacity between all parties involved in the freight transaction. We are helping to connect SMEs to port authorities to spur on innovation in the market and make our port infrastructure even more of an international success.


Intelligent mobility envisions the ‘levelling-up’ of all regions across the UK with the help of space-based infrastructures. For example, the team is working on using satellites to provide ubiquitous connectivity for rail users in stations and carriages. The aim is to eliminate ‘not-spots’ whereby towns may suffer from limited or no connectivity, a disincentivising factor to the economic development of these areas. Simultaneously, we are also supporting the automobile industry move towards ubiquitous connectivity in cars to enhance consumer productivity and provide enhanced entertainment and advertising opportunities in view of the near-future automation of road vehicles.

Moreover, intelligent mobility also includes using satellite technology to aid those most vulnerable, and we are working on the possibility of drone transportation infrastructure providing ‘last-mile delivery’ for medical supplies. Using satellite data to help create Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) systems, the Catapult is leading innovation in this area to support the growth of the UAS industry by looking into early-adoption frameworks for drone activities.

The global market for intelligent mobility is expected to grow to £900 billion by 2025, and our research shows advanced, innovative satellite-enabled technologies will help to make transportation systems safer and increase the efficiency of existing transport infrastructure through a reduction in congestion. In turn, this could have beneficial effects on the environment leading to a reduction in air and noise pollution, an immensely important aspect of innovation in the transport sector.

Space technologies therefore present an invaluable opportunity for the transportation industry if their capacities are utilised. Our aim is demonstrate the range of communication, navigation and observation possibilities, and to assist public authorities in the future-proofing of our vital transportation networks; innovating to secure a more efficient, more mobile and more connected future.

Read more about our work in the transport sector here: