Tim Peake has recently been called up for a mission which will take him to the International Space Station where, for six months in 2015, he will carry out scientific experiments.
The adventurer is the first ‘official astronaut’ from the UK, which marks out how little the nation has put towards exploration efforts. However, it is a little-known fact that Britain has one of the most commercially successful space industries.
In 2012, chancellor George Osborne picked the UK space industry as one of eight technology areas which the UK will aim to become a world leader in. There are a number of successful engineering and aerospace firms such as QinetiQ and GE Aviation Systems – but it is those making waves in the satellite data space that are showing the most potential.
Technology there relates to smartphone applications, location-based services and IT systems. It is being driven by the increase in personal technology devices as people become more and more dependent on data-assisted devices.
The infrastructure these kind of start-ups need is well under way in its development. Back in April, the global navigation satellite system currently being built by the European Union and the European Space Agency, Galileo, provided its first signal. The €5 billion (£4.3 billion) development was devised to provide a high-precision positioning system which countries in Europe can rely on.
Doug Watson, of the UK Satellite Navigation Competition, runs a process from his base at the University of Nottingham which is open to any entrepreneur with an idea which utilises satellite navigation technology.
Watson says the competition, which is now in its 10th year, is aiming to stimulate public interest in satellite navigation.
‘Most people who come through the competition don’t see themselves as space technology people – they just see a fit with the competition,’ he explains.
‘Not every idea is polished, but ideas that need developing are getting support.’
Government help, Watson says, is imperative and is something he is happy to see being initiated.
Deep space thinking
The UK Space Agency was the recipient of a £1.2 billion investment in 2012. David Willets, minister for universities and science, wants to build on an industry, which is currently worth £9.1 billion, so that it stands at £40 billion by 2030.
One such initiative to come out of this drive is the government’s Satellite Applications Catapult. Set up earlier in 2013 with funding from the government’s Technology Strategy, the Catapult is attempting to turn the UK into a ‘world-class’ centre for the development and commercial exploitation of space and satellite-based products, services and applications.
The Catapult is based at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, a science and technology campus in Oxfordshire which Willets has said he wants to turn into a ‘Space City’ – similar to the Tech City that has sprung up in East London during the last decade.
As well as providing in-orbit test facilities, allowing UK organisations to demonstrate new satellite technologies, the government claims it removes ‘significant cost barriers’ and shortens the time UK businesses will wait to achieve a first flight demonstration for new equipment and technologies in space.
One such business which is located in Harwell is Mark Habgood’s Instantvue. Having been involved in a car accident which left him unsure where he stood on a liability front, the entrepreneur has since set up a mobile application which assists in the aftermath of a traffic accident by guiding the user through the process of obtaining a positioning fix, taking photographs of the licence plats of all vehicles, and storing those images for safekeeping.
Habgood says, ‘There are 30 million motorists in the UK, and three quarters of us will have smartphones soon. With three million claims a year, this is now worth about £10 billion.’
Alex Oviawe was working for Premiership football club West Ham United as an assistant sports scientist when he began to develop his business idea based on using satellite navigation.
By finishing as a runner up in the UK Satellite Navigation Compeition, Oviawe has received support and funding for his business which is soon going to have its first prototype. His Precision Sports Technologies business is a ‘low cost’ GPS-based development for an elite training system associated with monitoring and enhancing sport performance.
Oviawe says that he never viewed it as a business in the early days, and it was only through loosing his job at West Ham United when the club was relegated that he began to take it seriously as a venture.
For the kind of businesses being built by Oviawe and Habgood, having the right infrastructure in place is.
Sam Adler, business innovation manager at the government’s Satellite Applications Catapult, says, ‘We’ve got to keep investing to allow the next generation of innovation to take place.
While the UK will probably never put a man on the moon (or join the race to Mars), it appears the government and the European Union’is providing a framework where the sky is definitely not the limit for British entrepreneurs.