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Reflections on my first six months in the Scottish space sector – Sue Kee

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Well, time really does fly when you’re having fun. I can’t quite believe that six whole months has passed since I started the role of Business Development Manager at the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications, (SoXSA).

My career change was one that I had planned — I worked hard in my spare time to gain a Postgraduate Certificate in Space Science from the Open University during 2018 — but it was a huge leap after 15 years in Technology Support Services in IBM UK. I was certainly nervous but excited to become part of Scotland’s rapidly growing space sector.

I wanted to put in writing what I’ve learned so far and share it far and wide, because every day has blown my mind in terms of the incredible capability within Scotland, and the continued opportunity we have to innovate in this sector and drive real economic and societal benefit.

SoXSA is one of five Centres of Excellence in Satellite Applications across the UK, aiming to promote the use of satellite data with respect to solving real challenges on earth. We like to think of it as “bringing space down to earth”. We do this by pulling together the local network, engaging across academia, industry, public sector, funding bodies and other support organisations to drive innovative solutions to global problems. SoXSA is a delivery partner of the Satellite Applications Catapult, the UK Space Agency and Scottish Enterprise.

I’m based at the University of Strathclyde and one of the key things that has struck me over the last half a year is just how innovative and industry-focussed this institution is. The Glasgow City Innovation District was launched here on the 1st February, and will be a hub for entrepreneurship, innovation, and collaboration, building on Scotland’s rich tradition of scientific excellence and industrial collaboration. “Space technologies” is one of the six clusters upon which the Technology & Innovation Centre zone will be expanded, and it’s really exciting to be here as it comes to life.

I also had the privilege to take part in Strathclyde Entrepreneurial Network’s “Enterprise Pathway” competition as a mentor to teams within the “space” theme. The teams, formed from undergrads and postgrads from all different disciplines, were challenged to create an entrepreneurial business idea, evaluate the competitive landscape and the market opportunity and then pitch their proposal in a “dragon’s den” style final within the space of just a month. It was a pleasure to be involved, and I’m very proud that one of the space teams, H2Orbit, earned the runner-up prize after losing to the winning team by just 3%!

In addition to an award-winning Business School, Strathclyde has an impressive engineering heritage, with the Aerospace Centre of Excellencefocusing on research areas such as Flight & Spaceflight Mechanics, Spacecraft Systems, and Computational Intelligence. This feeds into the wider Ocean, Air and Space theme, which also incorporates the Centre for Signal & Image Processing and the Centre for Space Science and Applications, doing valuable work such as environmental monitoring of the earth’s oceans using satellite data.

Strathclyde has also launched a new MSc in Satellite Applications, commencing in September 2019 and focusing on data science, entrepreneurship and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Exciting times, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much innovation and research happening at Strathclyde that I’m just starting to get to grips with how much I still don’t know…

And of course Strathclyde is just one of the fine academic institutions in Scotland who are contributing to the space sector. The University of Glasgow has a well-established space community, working on planetary science, solar flare forecasting, drill tools for planetary exploration, space debris mitigation and SPACE TRUCKING to name just a few topics. The University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences is a hotbed of activity within earth and planetary science, including focus on remote sensing for forestry, as just one example. Edinburgh also hosts the Bayes Centre, a data-driven innovation hub which is a real boon for the city in its (very real) aspiration to be the data science capital of Europe. The University of Stirling has an excellent reputation in Biological and Environmental Sciences, and is involved with a number of Horizon 2020 projects focussed on monitoring coastal and inland waters. Their satellite remote sensing research includes using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) for marine and aquaculture applications. The Environmental Research Institute (ERI) at the University of the Highlands and Islands is also particularly interested in remote sensing, and is engaged in research topics including peatland condition, marine renewable energy and marine microplastics.

The breadth and depth of academic expertise in Scotland is so vast that it’s difficult to get to grips with everything that’s going on, related to space and satellite applications. I’ve set myself the challenge of mapping this in 2019 so that thematic areas can be identified, and in the hope that industry can easily engage with the most appropriate researchers.

Talking of industry, I’ve also spent a lot of time meeting businesses of all sizes in Scotland and engaging with them. It is still one of my favourite facts that Glasgow builds more satellites than any other city in Europe, and I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with the wonderful people at Clyde SpaceSpire and Alba Orbital who are all contributing to the small satellite revolution. CubeSats and pocketqubes by nature of their small size, low weight and standardised components, bring very attractive cost benefits to customers, and this in turn leads to the possibility of constellations of small satellites providing high global coverage and frequent refresh rates, compared to the more expensive, higher mass and higher altitude spacecraft, which may only pass over a given area of interest every week or so.

Last month I had the chance to host a DataFest fringe workshop with my talented colleagues at the Satellite Applications Catapult to build and code tiny Ubo satellites. This was mind-blowingly good fun, not just because it was like doing some Ikea construction in miniature, but because in just a few short hours we were able to transmit selfies and text messages to a “ground station”, and print graphs of the attitude and change in rotational speed. These 3D-printed forms are not designed for the rigours of launch and the space environment, but they definitely get the creative juices flowing!

Currently small satellites are launched from countries including India, Kazakhstan and the USA on rideshares with other payloads, but Scotland is on the brink of hosting its very own spaceports, which could appear in several locations including Sutherland, Shetland and Prestwick. When we consider that Skyrora in Edinburgh, and Orbital Access in Prestwick are both developing launch vehicle technology, it’s inspiring to think that within a couple of years we will have the full, end to end space supply chain here in Scotland!

But what do these cool spacecraft do? What is the point of putting them into orbit? Satellites carry payloads dedicated to providing services to users on earth, in almost ANY sector — health, mobility, agriculture, finance, energy, defense and many more. Their functions can be categorised into three areas:

· Earth observation

· Position, navigation and timing

· Communications

Communications is perhaps the most established of these areas, and satellite television is already widely available across the globe, but we are continuing to see rapid developments in all areas of space technology, meaning we can really start to address new challenges to solve. In many cases the data is made freely available to the public to make use of, (for example from the European Commission’s Copernicus programme, in partnership with ESA). Again, Scotland is punching far above its weight in terms of leveraging satellite data for the benefit of us on earth.

Ecometrica, headquartered in Edinburgh, is using satellite imagery to monitor the health of the earth, with a particular focus on forests as part of a significant International Partnerships Programme (IPP) projectAstrosat in Musselburgh similarly apply intelligence to remotely sensed data to support a variety of projects, including mapping fuel poverty in the UK. GSi is also in Edinburgh and combines AI with earth observation data to make insights in land classification, agriculture and more. Spire is headquartered in Glasgow and provides solutions in maritime, aviation and atmospheric contexts using a whole range of positioning and tracking data from lower earth orbit. Bird.iprovides high resolution satellite imagery, Envisage Space is developing new services derived from satellite applications, Topolytics is tracking waste using satellite data… the list goes on and on!

There is a fantastic space startup scene in Scotland too. At Tontine in Glasgow, SoXSA and the UK Space Agency supports three rapidly expanding technology businesses: R3-IOT, using satellites to provide ubiquitous IoT infrastructure; Craft Prospect, providing mission and systems engineering as well as developing satellite autonomy and quantum technologies; and the ‘Blue-Sky Thinking’ Fintech award-winning Trade in Space, identifying new ways of trading agriculture around the world using satellite technology.

In Edinburgh, business incubation is also offered at the Higgs Centre for Innovation, with the European Space Agency offering support to entrepreneurs wishing to use space technology in a non-space environment. The European Space Agency is also represented within SoXSA by Dr Pam Anderson, who is the ESA Business Applications regional ambassador for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The programme that Pam supports is subscribed to by the UK to enable and support companies in almost any sector to apply space data and technology in commercial services. It’s an exciting and collaborative funding opportunity and Pam’s role is to help businesses refine their initial application into the programme.

Scotland is also home to eight fantastic Innovation Centres which are dedicated to encouraging and strengthening the bond between academia and industry in Scotland. How fortunate we are to be able to fund research into strategically important sectors including digital healthaquaculture and Oil & Gas, as well as the non-industry specific centres CENSIS and The Data Lab, relating to sensors and imaging systems, and data science, respectively.

I joined forces with the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC) for an event in February to provide an overview of the opportunities afforded to the construction sector by satellite applications. Imagine being able to select the best site based on a variety of remotely sensed data; being able to track the progress of a project remotely; tracking autonomous vehicles on a site; providing satellite connectivity on remote sites where mobile coverage is poor; or being able to monitor the effectiveness of insulation after a project is completed? There are many possibilities, and I’m delighted that the CSIC created a funding opportunity to investigate new satellite applications in the sector. More on this particular topic in the future, I hope, along with similar in other sectors!

Because of our incredible location, wealth of talent and unique support structure, it’s no surprise that companies from other countries are keen to inwardly invest, and Scottish Development International are here to guide them and connect them to the right skills, R&D and finance.

SoXSA also attracted more than 200 delegates from 14 countries and 116 organisations at our annual Data.Space conference in January. We talked about the blue economy, humanitarian issues, emerging technologies, space debris, deforestation and quantum key distribution. We heard from organisations as diverse as the Royal Air Force, Amazon Web Services, the UK Space Agency and the European Marine Energy Centre. And I got to perform my world-famous Address to the Haggis at the gala dinner too!

Scotland is on the verge of something really special in the space sector. We’ve already made great strides in establishing viable businesses delivering real solutions, and doing critical research work. The Scottish Space Leadership Council, comprised of leaders in the industry with the aim of defining our collective national ambitions, will be launching its website in the near future and I expect to see a gear-shift that will see our country earn a larger share of the global space economy.

And on a personal level, I have learned a lot too… The importance of being kind to myself and remembering that I’m not supposed to have all the answers in a new environment… Making time to prioritise the strategically important items instead of just bouncing from meeting to meeting… Continuing to ask the silly questions because they are rarely a waste of time… Accepting that I may never understand quantum computing despite several very clever people patiently explaining it to me, (you lost me after Schrodinger’s cat)… Most importantly I have learned that making a big career decision, though daunting, is a rewarding and exciting step.

All that in six months.

Who knows what the next six months will bring?…

The Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications, SoXSA, is bringing space down to Earth.