Where next for Scotland's space sector?

Mention the word ‘space’ to most entrepreneurs and they’ll immediately think of Tim Peake orbiting the Earth in the International Space Station. Ask them how they could use space to enhance their business and they’ll most likely give you a very blank look.

Yet companies and organisations from throughout Scotland are already starting to use space data. From more accurate weather forecasts to tracking aircraft and ships, the information being gathered by satellites is helping Scottish businesses to grow sales and save money. The importance of satellite information was highlighted at the inaugural ‘Data.Space’ conference, which took place at the Technology & Innovation Centre (TIC) at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow on 1 and 2 February. The event attracted 174 delegates over the two days.

“The event really put Scotland on the map,” says Hina Bacai, innovation director at the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA). “It made people sit up and look to see what’s going on. That happened with people from around the UK but also on an international scale.

“More than 50% of those delegates came from outside Scotland and 20% came from outside the UK. As well as delegates from the four home nations, we also had a further 11 countries represented at the conference.

“The international delegates said that they were very impressed that we had brought together people from businesses and organisations that are already using satellite data, as well as people from Scotland’s space sector. The conference allowed a lot of people to come together and meet others who they may not necessarily have otherwise met.

“The speakers we had from Silicon Valley were very interested in how we had put together the conference, but also how we had brought everyone together to have conversations between space and non-space people.”

Andrew Macdonald, senior innovation manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult (OREC) in Glasgow, took to the stage at the conference in a panel session alongside: Gordon Burrows, head of delivery for the Borders at ScottishPower Energy Networks; Joe Thompson, data manager at the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) on Orkney; and Moody Alam, lead data scientist at the Energy Systems Catapult and an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Oxford.

“From an offshore wind perspective, I was hearing some very exciting prospects through improved weather forecasting and wave forecasting, which are both hugely important for the operation and maintenance of turbines,” Macdonald says. “Understanding and being able to forecast wave heights is crucial when it comes to reducing the cost of accessing turbines. Some of the positioning stuff is really exciting because if we can learn more about the how the structure of a wind turbine is behaving then we can potentially reduce costs by using less steel and other materials in their construction.

“We’ll be working with the sector to do demonstration work. We have a 7MW research and development turbine in Fife so we’d be delighted to be involved in putting sensors on it and comparing their readings against data from space to prove to the sector that space data can have a beneficial effect on the industry.”

Peter Morton is chair of Morton Manufacturing, which is based at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and which is setting up a new company, Tactical Wireless, at Forres in Moray. Morton has developed the Omni Hub, a communications device that latches onto satellite links, mobile phone networks or even wireless broadband signals to let it transmit data from remote areas.

He plans to open a factory in Forres to manufacture Omni Hub, once he has secured orders from the health boards in the North of Scotland. His company has already been involved in demonstration projects with NHS Highland and the universities of Aberdeen and the Highlands & Islands to help improve the care of diabetes and stroke patients.

The company is launching a distributor in Australia in partnership with an agency and has already appointed a distributor to cover Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It also has sales inquiries from Chile and the United States.

“I got the impression from the conference that Scotland already has a well-developed space sector,” says Morton, who was also one of the speakers at the event. “Glasgow appears to be building more satellites than any other city in Europe.

“I don’t really accept the distinction between ‘old space’ and ‘new space’, but Glasgow seems to have had a big impact on the ‘new space’ market with all the nano-satellites it builds. The conference was well attended and it was very useful for me because it’s led to some potential new business leads.”

Following the success of this year’s conference – which was created and developed by SoXSA and delivered by BE Group, BQ’s parent company – attention is already turning to next year’s event. “We had a significant amount of interest from the international delegates in supporting and being involved in organising next year’s conference,” Bacai explains. “They found it very refreshing that Scotland’s space sector is positioning itself to be accessible to the non-space community.

“They were impressed that it wasn’t just space people talking to space people. They liked the fact that much of the content was accessible to the non-space delegates – we want to continue and develop that theme next year.

“There are many very good companies working in the space sector in Scotland, but their drive is to engage with and deliver services for the non-space community. We want to harness that desire and move it forward. That may also encourage other companies to come and set up in Scotland.”

Published: 17 March 2017

Article by Peter Ranscombe
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