Space to expand - an interview with Dr Helen Meese of the IMechE

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:

As Head of Engineering in Society at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Dr Helen Meese looks at different areas of engineering with a view to developing policies that could benefit the IMechE’s 112,000 members. With the Government’s recently stated intention to capture 10% of a global market that is estimated to have reached £400bn by 2030, space has become a developing market of considerable interest.

“The UK has been a global leader in major aspects of space and satellite systems over the last 40 years,” said Meese. “Many consider it to be one of the most innovative and cost effective space sectors of any nation in the world.” In fact it supports 106,000 jobs, 34,500 of which are direct employed, and about 72,000 which are indirect jobs through supply chain. The Government’s long term plan, outlined in the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS), aims to almost double employment in the sector.

In total, nearly £144million is spent on UK satellite manufacture, and service providers each year, and that's split among about 400 businesses, of which half of those are SMEs.And of its £0.7billion turnover last year, Airbus Defence and Space flowed down about 60% of that money down into the supply chain.

However it is at the other end of the market, where satellites are the size of a loaf of bread rather than a small bakery, where much of the interest lies. Meese commented: “The satellite market is now ripe for disruption, and certainly by emerging technologies.And it's becoming more accessible to, and affordable for, small businesses and start-ups who want to fly their own missions.

“Failure, of course, can't be easily rectified once it's up in space.The cost of getting hardware into space is around £2000 per kilogram and that's almost as costly as the satellite itself.However, innovative approaches to design, exploiting cost technologies, standardisation of launch vehicle integration, and increased availability of piggybacking launches, are enabling greater access to space and creating new uses for satellite data. This new approach is dependent on an iterative development programme, and it's often referred to as agile space, or flexible space.”

A key enabler to this ‘flexible space’ are the CubeSats, or nano sats, that can weigh just a few kilograms. Meese said: “Despite their diminutive size they have the ability to collect and retrieve, store and process data pretty much on the same scale as large satellites - and that can be up to about a terabyte of data per day.”

Despite the opportunities offered by this latest technology, Meese has uncovered some significant barriers that stand in the way of progress, particularly for the small satellite sector.“This includes things like regulation and licensing, private and public investment, and education.If the UK is going to achieve the IGS goals, then these barriers must be addressed.And at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, we believe that greater engagement between the UK satellite industry stakeholders is key to ensure the success of the industry in the future.”

The report, in which Meese collects the findings of her year-long analysis and which will be published this month, indicates a lack of private financing and venture capital. This is in part due to the risk of costly missions, uncertainties as to the future restrictions on satellite data, and a lack of understanding by wider industry on the high value returns from satellite build and operation.

“Additionally, developing nations are luring small satellites businesses away with the opportunity to create new technology without the financial and regulatory burdens levied in the UK,” claimed Meese. “The UK Outer Space Act, which covers the launch and operation liability laws for satellite operators is now 30 years old, and it doesn't include these new technologies that are being developed.It must be revised to acknowledge this technical advancement and the changing nature of space usage.And despite providing £52 billion per year to the UK economy, radio frequency spectrum, which is used in satellite communication, is becoming a scarce resource for all satellite use operators.There is an immediate need for frequency sharing to be implemented, and to ensure that parity between existing, incumbent operators and the newer, smaller, short-term ones.”

Meese also called for the UK to change its insurance obligations. The UK is the only launching nation to require satellite operators to pay for third-party liability.Growth can only be stimulated in the CubeSat and small sat market, if this TPL insurance is ended and a more appropriate solution, based on up-to-date knowledge of large and small satellite operations is found.

One of the issues that the space market shares with many other sectors in science and engineering is the well publicised lack of qualified engineers ready to fill those 100,000 jobs that are created. “The speed at which the small satellite sector is growing is has put an increased strain on the recruitment pipeline,” said Meese “Whilst the UK space sector continues to grow, the domestic supply is limited, and an increasing number of degree qualified engineers and technicians are being recruited from overseas.Growth amongst universities and start-ups and SMEs is therefore required if the space industry, and ultimately, the satellite industry, is going to maintain its global standing.”

CV

Dr Helen Meese is Head of Engineering in Society at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. She manages its programme on innovative and emerging technologies and their impact on UK and global communities. Through reports and policy making she engages with the general public, government and the media to raise the profile of engineering both in the UK and internationally.

She is an Electro-Mechanical Power Engineer with over 19 year of experience in both academia and industry.Her academic career was spent at Loughborough University researching turbocharger performance characteristics and developing electrical defence systems for armoured vehicles. Her industrial career was predominantly in the defence industry working for Babcock International and GE Energy, where she managed projects on euro-fighter typhoon, submarine systems and naval vessels.



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