Written Evidence Submitted by CFMS Services Ltd
We present several options for a future UK space strategy. Our perspective has been derived from our experience as a company, the decades of space sector wisdom of our staff, and knowledge recently acquired from forming the West of England Space Hub. It is our belief that the strategy we propose offers maximum benefit for the UK space sector, and leverages additional gearing from existing UK R&D spending.
The establishment of a sector body fulfilling the roles that the ATI and NATEP conduct in Aerospace is a key foundation for the implementation of any space sector strategy, and a notable absence from the current landscape. These agencies would assist the transfer into the space sector of existing technologies, many of which were developed in other UK government funded programmes. This creates additional return on the investment. The agencies would, like NATEP, seek to provide mentors and support to assist SMEs with their move into the sector. A key role of this new body would be to help SMEs identify problems in the space industry that their technologies might resolve.
However, creating new technologies is of limited use if they cannot be demonstrated, and qualified, for deployment in space. We therefore recommend that the UK government re-adopts an enduring programme of technology demonstrators, capitalizing on the forthcoming UK space launch capabilities. This programme would enable access to space flight opportunities for companies of all sizes and wherewithals. Such demonstrators must be backed with suitable modelling and simulation, and for this we propose establishing a digital testbed, which would give companies access to the tools they need for success. Such a testbed would facilitate collaboration and secure, open data sharing as the central UK repository of qualified data sets for digital experimentation.
CFMS is an independent, not for profit research and technology organisation (RTO) based in the Bristol and Bath Science Park. We work to solve some of the hardest problems of digital engineering in sectors as diverse as energy, aerospace, transportation and advanced manufacturing. CFMS collaborates with a wide range of organisations, small and large. We recently assisted with the early creation phases of the West of England Space Hub, in conjunction with the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), the National Composites Centre (NCC) and three regional universities.
In conducting R&D in digital engineering CFMS sits at the crossroads of many industrial sectors, all of which face the same challenges of reducing investment risk and increasing productivity whilst reducing environmental impact. The space sector is no different in this regard. CFMS can ensure greater additionality from Government investment through the facilitation of technology transfer between sectors, reducing duplication and bringing advances in digital technology sooner to fruition
CFMS, Bristol & Bath Science Park, Dirac Crescent, Emersons Green, Bristol BS16 7FR
This response was prepared by Dr James Osborne & Prof Ian Risk on June 11th 2021.
Dr Osborne entered the space industry after completing his PhD in Astronautics at the University of Southampton. He has worked for companies in the UK and Germany, including delivering to ESA and EUMETSAT missions. He recently joined CFMS to evolve their future programmes, with an objective to establish space as an additional sector for CFMS research.
Prof Risk has spent close to 40 years working in the aerospace industry, initially with BAE Systems, EADS and Airbus. He joined CFMS in 2018 as their CTO and is responsible for the development and implementation of the CFMS Technical Strategy.
The core strand of CFMS research is undertaken through projects funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), for example we have participated in and led a number of projects funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) and Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC). Through these initiatives, the UK government provides adequate assistance to organisations and businesses such as ours to develop technologies, skills and capabilities, which in turn helps maintain the UK’s position in the top echelon of the world’s economies.
We believe that any space strategy should seek to emulate the success of the ATI, with a similar initiative uniquely focussed on the space sector. However, whilst this approach would, in and of itself, be a useful stepping stone to increasing the UK’s space sector market share, we believe it isn’t sufficient alone.
We feel a critical element of the UK’s future space strategy is to encourage the entrance into the space sector of companies holding portfolios of relevant technologies, capabilities and other intellectual property. Whilst companies and organizations such as our own can, of course, attempt this exploitation themselves, several barriers exist, and it is these hindrances that we hope the space strategy will seek to alleviate [Topic 2 - weakness].
The first barrier we perceive is that understanding what problems exist in the space sector requires a depth of knowledge and experience that many companies outside of the sector are unlikely to have in house. Therefore, the possibility to adapt a particular item of IP might be unknown to the organization holding it in their portfolio.
Secondly, funding the process to modify a technology or solution, prepare it for space sector usage, and then demonstrate it is a burden many smaller companies cannot, alone, achieve. Nor would many new entrants to the space sector have the knowledge required to undertake such a programme.
To eliminate these barriers we envisage a body, like the successful National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme (NATEP), would be established for the space sector. This body would oversee: Funding of technology transfer research; provide access to knowledgeable sector mentors/ champions in order to help identify relevant IP from within the company’s portfolio; and, by formulating & maintaining a list of pressing challenges within the space sector, give impetus to solution discovery. Such an approach has the benefit of reducing duplication in R&D spending. And, where the transferred item was developed with the aid of government grants in another sector, this approach extracts additional value from the investments already made by the taxpayer.
Our work with the West of England Space Hub showed how vibrant the SME cohort in our region is, something that appears to be repeated throughout the UK space sector. Unfortunately, our research, and that conducted in the “Size and Health of the UK Space Industry'', also demonstrates just how skewed the sector is towards a small number of large organizations: the so-called primes. Such dominance inarguably reduces the chances for existing space sector SMEs, and acts as another source of friction for new entrants to the sector [Topic 2 - weakness].
To tackle this inequality—which we feel stifles innovation—we propose the following measures [Topic 4 - strategy focus]:
The recently published paper, “Why Space? The Opportunity for Health and Life Science Innovation”, by the UK Space Life and Biomedical Science Association, made the point that the UK Government would be well advised to fund demonstrators. This aspect of government funding is especially critical in the “space flight” portion of the space sector; that is in the development of components for satellites, spacecraft and launch vehicles. The costs of these missions are such that any component must already be “flight qualified”, and achieving this status is expensive, time consuming and difficult to achieve without a target customer/platform.
To resolve this dichotomy, CFMS proposes that the UK Government once again funds space flight demonstrators [Topic 4 - strategy focus], as it once did with the Science and Technology Research Vehicles (STRV) flown by the then Defence Research Agency (DRA), which became DERA and then QinetiQ. These government-funded microsatellites provided opportunities to SMEs and academics to fly their systems in space, establishing their providence for future use on other vehicles, perhaps including commercial opportunities. Sadly, the programme was short lived [Topic 3 - lessons].
With the near-term advent of sovereign UK launch capability [Topic 2 - strength], the costs of executing such demonstration missions should be lowered, allowing a longer series of launches than STRV achieved in the 1990s. The continuity of this proposal is a key aspect: The lead time to design, develop and produce space flight hardware is such that a project started today might take many years before it is available for launch. To avoid the problems of the past, the demonstrator programme must become a regular and enduring feature of the UK space sector [Topic 3 - lessons].
But the UK launch capabilities, which are really only suited only to micro-/ nanosatellites, are not the only route for UK companies to gain access to the space environment. With the UK investment in OneWeb, there will be hundreds of UK satellites launched over the coming years. If even a small percentage of these vehicles could be modified to carry a “payload pallet”, in addition to their primary telecoms purpose, the UK space sector could benefit from frequent, low cost access to space [Topic 4 - strategy focus]. Moreover, the UK government might further extend their return on investment (RoI) in OneWeb by selling such flight opportunities to international partners.
At this point we must make reference to our core expertise of digital engineering, which spans a range of competencies of direct relevance to the space sector, and thus to any future national space strategy. We elucidate a few of these “crossovers” below, but many more exist, and together, they bring about the pressing need to invest in an open digital testbed for the UK space sector.
Designing, building, testing, qualifying and delivering hardware is an expensive endeavour, and often requires multiple iterations to achieve acceptable results. This is especially relevant in the harsh space environment. Such iteration wastes materials and energy, which has a negative impact on the environment. Digital engineering, such as that pioneered by CFMS, can help reduce these costs (financial, time, environmental) by ensuring the product is right the first time.
Modelling and simulation not only help reduce the reliance on manufacture of test items. By combining previously disparate engineering disciplines and tools into an overall “digital engineering” framework, we have demonstrated that this approach can yield tremendous improvements to all stages of the engineering process and for all scales of company.
However, modelling and simulation is only as effective as the input data. Thus, any digital testbed should have access to, if not be combined with, a data warehouse of suitable scale. This warehouse could act as the repository for the UK space sector data outputs, enabling secure data storage and sharing. Access to such data is especially important for SMEs, which (unlike the primes) don’t have the legacy of numerous space missions on which to draw. Indeed, an open data policy would be a good framework to adopt for this facility.
We thus envisage the UK space strategy having two development strands: a hardware & demonstrator path (discussed above), and a digital testbed path. These are complimentary, with one lowering the costs, extending the range/ fidelity and speeding development of the other. With the opportunity of exploiting the Industry 4.0 technologies of Digital Threads and Digital Twins enabled by the digital testbed, the UK would establish a world-leading capability unlike any other of which we are aware.
The last aspect we wish to bring to the committee’s attention is to consider alternatives to the questions of “sovereignty” in the space strategy [Topic 5 - sovereign infrastructure]. Whilst owning and operating dedicated systems, such as Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), is enticing, it comes at enormous cost, which would detract from the financing available for other aspects of the space strategy. Not to mention the difficulties in securing the necessary frequencies and orbital locations.
We feel it is possible to achieve many of the goals at a “user” level, without investing inordinate resources into the development of this capability at the “provider” level. For example, continuing with the GNSS analogy, we would recommend funding research into the equipment and software needed to combine the many GNSS signals already available. Such equipment would, we envisage, be able to remove any random or intentional corruption of the signal by comparison across all those available. Using other existing or new UK space assets, such as SkyNet or OneWeb to enhance the system is likely also an area of potential that should be explored through modelling and experiment.
Such a methodology could be extended across a range of systems. For example, why operate hardened military comsats when so many civilian (e.g. OneWeb, Starlink, Inmarsat to name but a few) and other friendly military powers have systems, often with far greater levels of redundancy, better coverage and performance than anything the UK might hope to procure? Instead, we could develop the capability to dynamically exploit those extant resources, enabling any damaged/interdicted element to be swapped automatically, and in short order, for a system still operational.
Taking this to the fullest conclusion, and combining many of the themes above, why not launch communications satellites on demand from the UK spaceports? Such satellites could be pre-manufactured & stored at site ready for launch, in a “just in time” manner. We envisage these satellites being sufficiently low in cost to view them as disposable & temporary assets. They could be used to provide a sovereign overlay to a commercial service for additional service assurance, or to “plug gaps” in the coverage of the existing commercial/ allied services upon which the remainder of the UK milsatcoms piggyback. Thus the UK milsatcom capability moves towards a DevOps like continuous integration, continuous delivery (CI/CD) methodology.
Any effective UK space strategy must, of course, take into account the realities of funding limitations in the current economic climate. Yet it should also be flexible enough to adapt to future changes in the economy. Our first proposal is to invest in an agency with the remit and wherewithal to expedite the transfer of existing and new technologies from other sectors (including from public, private and academic organisations) into the space sector. Such an agency would generate additional gearing of the R&D investment of past, present and future.
However, technology transfer is just one aspect that must be considered, the other is the necessity for an enduring programme of regular space demonstrators, a vital lesson learned from past UK initiatives in the sector, and our second proposal. Risk to the demonstrators can, and should, be reduced by establishing a validated digital testbed for the space industry, which can also act as the trusted vehicle for industry-wide collaboration, open data sharing and long term data storage. This is the third prong of our four-pronged approach.
The fourth and last prong we propose is the investigation of methodologies to circumvent unnecessary investment in expensive, and some might say redundant, sovereign infrastructure. By creating services and user equipment that can seamlessly integrate with multiple extant commercial and allied providers, using a software defined approach to configuration, a resilient system might be built from many component parts.
Overall, we envisage the above will engender alliances between SMEs, encouraging more reliance on SMEs by the larger companies (and from government space procurement), whilst avoiding duplication in R&D investment. Such an approach can be extrapolated to international partners also: collaborating not competing; enhancing not duplicating.