Despite making up only 9% of the UK population, the Scottish space sector accounts for 18% of jobs in the British space industry. It is home to a growing number of internationally recognised space organisations that contribute over £130m to the local economy every year.
A number of Scottish space products have already been sold to high profile customers, such as the Chinese National Space Administration, and RosCosmos of Russia. Key products have included: SpaceWire, which allows different systems on a spacecraft to communicate with one another; space thermal batteries, which are designed to function in extreme conditions; and UKube-1, the UK Space Agency’s first CubeSat mission, launched aboard a Russian Soyuz-2 rocket.
In a recent boost to the sector, the Scottish Centre for Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA) secured a major funding deal that will prolong its work by an additional three years. The centre, based at the University of Strathclyde, focuses on the use of satellite-derived data, and supports the use of satellite applications across industries.
“We try to engage with people who are not currently using data coming from spacecraft, to work with them to understand what their challenges are and how space data might be used to address part of that challenge.” Dr Malcolm Macdonald, Director of SoXSA, explains.
“Space data is very freely available but it comes in a form that’s pretty much useless unless you know what to do with it. So although you can get the data for free, you still need to know what that data means, how to interpret and process it.”
One example of this is using space data to identify the directional orientation of wind turbines. This process comes with a unique set of challenges, particularly for offshore turbines, but these can be offset by analysing satellite data.
Macdonald claims that collecting and analysing satellite data is an area of particular focus in Scotland’s space industry.
“In terms of the actual Scottish space sector, there are 67 different organisations or companies that are headquartered in Scotland… a number of them are what the sector describes as ‘downstream’, so they’re using the data or services that come from space rather than building spacecraft.”
When envisaging the space sector, Macdonald acknowledges that data analysis isn’t what immediately springs to mind. Rather, it’s the notion of rockets and spacecraft that captures the public imagination. Despite this, he believes data contains the real value:
“A lot of the economic value and a lot of the social value is in the data that comes from the spacecraft, be that for commercial services or direct home television. But also for monitoring climate change, weather predictions, etc.
“There’s been a good growth in start-up and new companies within Scotland, looking at how they can commercialise the data that comes from spacecraft… we’re really just starting to scratch the surface of the possibilities.”
Satellites & Spacecraft
Whilst Scotland’s space sector deals mostly in data collection, there are a number of organisations involved in spacecraft construction. An industry conference held in Glasgow in February revealed that in 2016, more satellites were built in Glasgow than in any other European city. One company in the field is Spire Global, which uses CubeSat satellites to collect data on ships, planes, and weather patterns. To date, they have sent 32 Glasgow-built satellites into space, and have 20 more waiting for launch.
“On the ship tracking side, we basically have full global coverage on every ship in the ocean,” Nick Allain, Director of Brand at Spire, explains. “That allows our customers to do some really interesting things, like detect illegal fishing or potential piracy incidents, or even just know where their ships are.”
On the weather front, Spire recently completed a data trial with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States, marking the first time that the US government has ever bought commercial weather data.
“That type of data we’re supplying is called GPS radio occultation… it is temperature, pressure, and humidity data about a slice of atmosphere. We take a lot of these readings over the entire planet, and you end up with a very clear data set to use in your forecasting models if you are a weather agency.”
With regard to aeroplanes, Spire is set to start launching satellites with plane tracking technology in the second half of this year. They will be used to track planes’ on-board ADS-B transponders, which can also be used in disaster and recovery situations. Allain speculates that had their constellation been active when MH370 went missing, Spire could have cut down the resulting search radius, “very very significantly.”
Scottish Space Sector
With spaces in San Francisco and Singapore, the question is raised as to why Spire chose Glasgow as their centre for satellite construction. According to Allain, the answer lies in Scotland’s skilled workforce, its proximity to the continent, and its space-tech cluster.
“There’s not a lot of places in the world that have a space cluster like Glasgow, where you can co-locate with other space companies. That had a lot to do with it,” Allain explains. “We also find that it’s easier to hire good people in Scotland than it is to hire good people in San Francisco… There’s a lot of competition for engineers and software engineers here in San Francisco, and it’s very difficult and expensive to recruit. Whereas over in Scotland we have good access to great engineers; there’s a lot of great universities around.”
A report released by London Economics in 2016, concerning the development of the Scottish space industry, credited the strength of the country’s universities with the continuing growth of the sector. Their success in attracting students to space-relevant courses, combined with the fact that 78% of Scottish graduates choose to remain in Scotland, means that organisations are able to recruit and retain qualified staff at a better rate than the rest of the UK.
Scotland also provides Spire with a geographical advantage: “The other thing is that it’s a really good place to access Europe,” he said. “English is the primary language, and it’s just very very easy.”
Asked whether Scotland’s access to the continent is liable to be compromised by Brexit, Allain advised that he didn’t believe it will have a significant impact on the sector:
“We kind of have to wait and see. A lot of the regulations on the space industry are international, at least the ones that affect the UK and Europe. It’s not likely to heavily change the way we do business at all, but of course we will keep a close eye on it. It could affect recruiting in some ways potentially – we’ll have to see.”
The Only Way Is UP
For the time being, Scotland’s space industry is growing at a rate that Malcolm Macdonald claims is faster than the UK average. Like Allain, he attributes this in part to the strength of Scotland’s universities:
“I think realistically, it’s a number of different reasons. Within Scotland we’ve always had an internationally leading academic space community, built from university research groups going back for decades. You think of some of the astronomy groups… at Glasgow University, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews… What we are seeing now is that transitioning into a more commercial activity as well.”
Beyond that, Macdonald says the reasons behind the sector’s success are anybody’s best guess. He believes that it is a combination of “happy coincidences,” including the proliferation of businesses established in Scotland by Scottish people that have passed through the local education system.
“I think there were a number of people making that decision at around the same sort of time, that has led to a bit of a critical mass, and a bit of a recognition from people outside the region that something interesting is going on. That has attracted them to come up, and has created a bit of presence.”
There are a few subtle differences between the UK and Scottish space sectors that Macdonald believes only insiders can understand:
“What has emerged in Scotland is what is termed ‘New Space;’ a more commercial, more agile form of business, with less dependency on government grants. It’s much more market driven in terms of its commercial nature.”
“It takes a slightly different approach, but it’s understandable in that you’re not going to replace the existing market or the existing dominant players in it by doing the same thing. You have to create a new market and do something different, and that is effectively what Scotland has been able to do.”
The growth of the Scottish space sector is set to continue, with estimates suggesting it will account for 9% of the UK space industry by 2030. According to Macdonald, the development has led to the increasing normalisation of the idea that Scotland “does space.”
“I think if you went back five years, that perception might be considered funny – but now it’s normal. It’s not treated as something quirky any more, but as something wonderful instead.”