Carving out a space in orbit
Technology is opening a new frontier in imaging and mapping, but businesses developing products need support
Most people in Ireland probably do not think about the space industry, but a growing number of Irish businesses are seeing potential in orbit.
A lot is happening: launched at an event held in Enterprise Ireland’s HQ at the end of April, the Irish Space Association (ISA) now brings together Irish space companies, while Ireland’s first satellite, Eiresat-1, will go into orbit this month.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has said that 87 Irish companies are working with the European Space Agency “to develop technologies for the institutional and commercial space markets as well as using space products to develop downstream applications” and technologies with non-space applications.
As a growing area, not just globally but locally, space technology could become an important part of the Irish economy, said Chris Donnelly, UX design principal at consultancy Each&Other.
“There’s a lot going on in Ireland, and there’s a great opportunity coming, we think. We see space as a very important area for growth,” he said.
Indeed, a PWC report published in July 2022 estimated the value of the space sector in the hundreds of billions.
“The upstream is estimated as being worth $25 billion, midstream $40 billion, and downstream $235 billion,” Donnelly said.
Typically, when we think of space, we think of countries such as the United States, France, Russia, China and Italy, all of which have long-established space industries that grew out their aeronautics and defence businesses. Of course, this is driven by dramatic images of rocket launches and satellites moving into their orbital positions. The reality, however, is that the launches and upstream of satellites and payloads is only a part of the picture.
Annual turnover: €3 million to €5 million, variable
After all, once a satellite is in orbit, it has to do something. This is where Each&Other sees the opportunity. Indeed, most of the Irish space sector and a growing component of the wider European space sector is in the ‘downstream’.
“Where the opportunities for design and UX come in is at the downstream point, which is generally where the greatest value is,” Donnelly said.
“The problem we want to help our clients solve is that all these satellites are streaming data down to the surface of the earth, and you need a good way to look at it and analyse it.”
Applications include preventative maintenance of online connectivity in commercial aviation, but also, crucially, earth observation and surveillance, which has applications in farming, forestry management and supporting the emergency services.
“We want to bring all of that information together and allow it to be analysed. We’re looking into the agriculture sector, helping people with issues such as crop and land use,” Donnelly said.
As satellite technology has such a wide potential application, it can be thought of as opening new doors.
“It’s a real meta technology that will become useful in so many different ways and in different areas of the world. The amount of information and the quality of the information coming back now is phenomenal,” he said.
For a design consultancy like Each&Other, the opportunity is to work with businesses interested in offering space technology-based services and help them to do more than provide mere images or data. Instead, they will be providing useful information.
“There’s also a need to ensure that the technical architecture is quite good so that it won’t create artefacts, and understanding what the end-use case is will have a big impact on how you present the information,” Donnelly said.
Ultimately, this is where Each&Other sees its role: in helping to design systems and processes that mean value can be made from downstream data.
“It’s a fiendishly complex space. You have all these data sources coming from sensors and you need to bring them all together. There’s a level of complexity and a lack of interpolation [between existing systems],” Donnelly said.