Michael Jaeger, a partner and patent attorney in the Electronics, Computing and Physics group at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers looks at what a commercial approach to innovation could mean for the space sector.
Historically, the space sector has relied largely on grants provided by governments and other public bodies to carry out R&D activity. This has directed the focus of innovators to specific research programmes, rather than encouraging more cross-fertilisation of ideas and open innovation. However, increasing private sector investment in recent years has paved the way for more commercially-minded SME innovators.
The self-serving nature of many space industry research programmes, which are set up to meet the needs of specific government-backed briefs, has discouraged start-ups and other new entrants from getting involved. While this approach offered innovators some clear benefits, as they could be certain that they would have the funding they needed to complete their project, there were some significant downsides too. For example, without a more diverse ‘ecosystem’ made up of entrepreneurs and private investors, there was little incentive for innovators to take the risk of participating in a new initiative if it lacked a reliable source of funding.
For many years, this reluctance to take risks resulted in low levels of patent-filing activity, compared to some other fields of tech, as government funding did not require proof of innovative credentials. Inventions were created to order, to meet a research programme’s specific brief, rather than for commercial gain.
Attitudes towards innovation in the global space industry are evolving, however. Sometimes referred to as ‘Space 2.0’, there is a clear move away from purely research-based activities, and greater consumer awareness of research in areas such as space travel, led by some high-profile entrepreneurs, has helped to generate wider interest in this field of R&D. According to UKSpace, the UK’s space industry is worth £14.8 billion to the economy and the Government has set its sights on capturing 10% of the global space market by 2030. This ambitious goal could not be achieved without the involvement of innovative SMEs and private investors, adding value to public-funded research programmes.
Although government funding will remain key to innovators in the space industry, there are now a growing number of dedicated private sector funds and support structures. These include Seraphim, a global leader in SpaceTech investment, and the Catapult network, which assists thousands of innovative businesses across the UK and includes a dedicated Satellite Applications Catapult.
Satellites are a major focus of attention for SME innovators, with many businesses now recognising the commercial potential of nanosatellites, which are commonly launched to low Earth orbit. Previously, satellites were mainly used by large telecommunications companies, and the size of the satellites required large and expensive rockets to launch them. However, nanosatellites mean much smaller rockets can be used, reducing the amount of infrastructure needed and lowering launch costs significantly.
Nanosats can also be built to fulfil specific applications, allowing organisations to develop satellites to meet their particular needs. For example, Earth observation satellites can utilise different electromagnetic spectrums to record photographic data, which can then be used to inform research programmes or leveraged commercially. Climate change is high on the global agenda, so being able to view the Earth’s CO2 emissions from space, and identify major sources, holds considerable value.
Planet, a real-time Earth observation company, has taken this approach and now has over 200 active nanosatellites in space. Known as ‘Doves’, they make up the world’s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites, providing transformative data for a variety of industry sectors, from agriculture to finance. Planet has been able to launch satellites quickly and cost effectively by using inexpensive electronics and innovative design, meaning it can now build and launch satellites faster than any other company or government in the world.
As well as developing satellites for different applications, innovators are also focusing on how to launch them more efficiently. B2Space, a company dedicated to taking other businesses to space, is developing a stratospheric balloon, which lifts rockets into the upper atmosphere in order to shorten their journey into orbit. Most of a rocket’s weight is its fuel. Therefore, if the amount of fuel needed in a rocket to reach low Earth orbit can be reduced, the payload to overall rocket weight ratio can be increased. Reducing the fuel requirement has the additional benefit that a considerably lower volume of emissions is given off during the rocket’s journey into space. The shorter the journey, the less fuel needed, thereby lessening the environmental impact of satellite launches.
Another SpaceTech innovation with environmental benefits is data storage company, LyteLoop’s patent pending data storage satellite (EP3745605 (A1)). Data centres currently consume around 1% of global electricity and this is predicted to rise. LyteLoop aims to move data storage into space using a photonic method of storage, which means placing it in a constant state of perpetual motion. Powered by the sun, and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, these satellites do not contribute to global warming. Plus, as it exists in a vacuum, data transfer can be achieved much more quickly than on Earth - at a rate of 300,000km/sec.
The arrival of more new entrants in the sector means it has become increasingly important for all innovators to secure patent protection to stop others from copying their inventions and claiming them as their own. In addition, having a well-defined IP strategy makes businesses more attractive to investors, providing credibility and security. As SpaceTech’s innovation ecosystem moves closer to the more developed systems found in other fields of technology, robust commercial protection will become more important than ever for start-ups and businesses alike who are seeking to scale their propositions.
The true potential of the UK’s space sector is only now emerging, and with technology advancing at an impressive rate, the future looks bright for the many companies and organisations involved. Those wanting to realise their commercial potential should consider applying for patents early on, to stake their claim to a share of this fast-paced market.