Written Evidence Submitted by the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, The University of Birmingham and the West Midlands Regional Economic Development Institute



This submission provides a combined response from the University of Birmingham, the West Midlands Regional Economic Development Institute, and the UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Timing. We provide a case for a future UK space strategy to consider the significant strengths of the West Midlands that brings together leading expertise in the universities, High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres and a critical mass of the relevant industry eco-system. The West Midlands space-related activities range from world-leading low TRL academic-led R&D through to innovation and advanced manufacturing for space to end-user date centred companies. We identify 1. a unique time-limited opportunity to be a world leader in the roll-out of Quantum Technology sensors for space applications and establish the supply-chains and manufacture in the UK. 2. An evidence-led region-wide study (funded by the UK Space Agency) that shows the huge potential in the West Midlands to establish a space cluster for economic growth.  

Our specific recommendations are:


  1. The Organisations


1.1   The University of Birmingham (UoB)

UoB received its Royal Charter in 1900 making it the first English civic or 'red brick' university. It is a founding member of both the Russell Group and the international network of research universities, Universitas 21. The University has always been at the forefront of research and 11 of its alumni and staff have been recognised with Nobel Prizes. UoB is in the UK’s top tier for income from industry and engages with more than 500 companies each year. An independent study in 2016 showed that the University through its activities contributes £3.5 billion a year to the UK economy and recently (KEF 2021) UoB was identified as the top UK University (by a factor 10) for local growth and regeneration. UoB is one the founding members of the Manufacturing Technology Centre, part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

1.2  The UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing (QTH)

The UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing (led by the University of Birmingham) is one of four Hubs within the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme. The Hub brings together experts from Physics and Engineering from the Universities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Imperial, Nottingham, Southampton, Strathclyde and Sussex, NPL, the British Geological Survey and over 70 industry partners. The Hub has over 100 projects, valued at approximately £100 million, and has 17 patent applications.

1.3 West Midlands Regional Economic Development Institute (WM REDI)

The City-Regional Economic Development Institute (City-REDI) and West Midlands Regional Economic Development Institute (WM REDI) are two sister institutes at the University of Birmingham. They aim to improve prosperity and inclusive economic growth at the sub-national level in the UK and develop practical insight in order to better inform and influence regional and national economic growth policies.

  1. Science, Technology and Innovation- capabilities and focus

The University of Birmingham has an extensive and wide-ranging set of activities in Space. This includes electronics and hardware for exploration with a cleanroom equipped for European Space Agency qualified electronics assembly, materials for applications ranging from THz Space communications to hypersonic systems and in-space assembly technologies based on additive manufacturing. Two particular focus areas are Space Weather (partners include the Met Office) which is of national strategic importance and Quantum Technologies for sensor and timing. Both are important to the resilience of Critical National Infrastructure.

Understanding the near-Earth space environment is of crucial importance to modern society. This complex, and rapidly evolving, region of the Earth’s upper atmosphere impacts a wide range of Critical National Infrastructure technologies including GNSS, HF radar, low frequency astronomy and the orbit of satellites. The understanding and modelling of the dynamics of different layers of the atmosphere such as the Ionosphere and the Thermosphere have a fundamental role to play in the performance optimisation and resilience improvement for the technologies mentioned above.

Cutting-edge research by the UoB Space Environment and Radio Engineering group enables planning and mitigation of the impact of adverse conditions as well as providing tools to help policy makers and governments to make informed decisions about space weather with a strategically significant outlook. A key tool for this is the Advanced Ensemble electron density (Ne) Assimilation System (AENeAS). AENeAS is an operational first-principles data assimilation model of the Earth’s ionosphere and thermosphere. It uses state-of-the-art mathematical techniques and tens of thousands of observations distributed all over Earth to make accurate and actionable space weather forecasts in real time.

The UK has a thriving space industry and is a leader in quantum technology. Combining the two would bring enormous benefits, engendering new industries with high productivity. The space sector currently underpins more than 10% of the UK economy and supports other sectors through satellite services such as communication, navigation and weather forecasting. Quantum technology is indispensable to future-proof these services, safeguarding UK leadership in insurance and finance, and also to enable entirely new applications and growth in other sectors such as autonomous transport and precision agriculture.

2.1.   Prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation

International space agencies are actively pursuing quantum technologies. China has taken a lead in quantum communications with the MICIUS satellite, launched the first cold-atom clock in space and started ambitious programs for space-based optical clocks and atom interferometers. ESA and NASA are developing optical clocks for space, and the German Space Agency has joined forces with NASA to put an atom interferometer on the international space station.

The UK is in an excellent position to take a lead in quantum technology services from space. The £1bn UK National Quantum Technology Programme has helped to create some of the world’s most advanced quantum sensing, imaging, communication and computing technologies, with developments including a satellite payload demonstrator for cold atoms. The programme’s focus on low-cost sensors is ideally suited for commercial space applications.

2.2.   SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY: Strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base

The overall UK investment in Quantum Technologies corresponds to ~5% of total international investments, whilst the UK quantum sensor activities account for ~10% of worldwide quantum sensor activities. On a national basis the UK is clearly in a leading position. The drive towards low size, weight and power in the UoB Hub program opens up the opportunity to capitalize on the UK leadership in small satellites and utilize UK launch facilities. 

2.3.   SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY: What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of previous space strategies for the UK and the space strategies of other countries?

2.3.1.   Successes:

          UK small satellite and technology demonstration satellite programmes

          UK companies capturing venture capital for quantum technology in space (e.g. Arqit valued at $1.4bn)

The lesson from these successes is that supporting the development of small, cost-effective technologies and providing de-risking by technology demonstrator missions is driving commercial investment.

2.3.2.   Recommendation

Initiate a UK Technology-Demonstrator-Satellite programme, taking advantage of cost-effective launch platforms and UK launch sites to allow faster and cheaper innovation for Space. The UK would take a lead in comparison to the slow and expensive ground validation approach taken by most space agencies.

2.3.3.   Failures:

The split between funding for mission development with UKRI and mission launch/operations UKSA is detrimental. This split is drying out the ideas pipeline for innovative missions with high risk – high return on investment. Many exciting innovative Space Technologies ideas in the UKSA programmes are sent to international programmes, as the national resource for these ideas/initiatives is underfunded. Other players such as France and Germany include research under their Space Agency programmes and they are driving the agenda in terms of international mission proposals and roadmaps.

2.3.4.   Recommendation

Task UKSA with the development of a research and innovation programme, providing additional funding to UKSA to be internationally competitive in this area. This programme could include, for example, academic-led Space Innovation Hubs and Space Skills programmes.

2.4.   SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY: What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy?

          Technology: The current UK funding structures are not well placed to realise novel opportunities. We recommend that a number of high impact applications become the focus of a programme of joint funding by the two leading agencies to push promising capability through to TRL 6 where there is a higher chance of adoption by industry. Specifically:

          Research funding, investment and economic growth: Establish academic-led Space Technology Hubs, which provide low-TRL ideas into the existing higher-TRL structures around RAL and the Space Applications Catapult.  

          Civil and defence applications: Net zero carbon and climate change mediation supported by earth observation
Resilience of Critical National Infrastructure by GNSS alternatives in Space AND on ground
Gravity mapping for resilient PNT

          International considerations and partnerships: All space projects are expensive and it would therefore be prudent to consider, where appropriate, collaboration with international partners.  We believe that a collaboration with Japan and Canada for both fundamental clock development and the applications to exploit precision timing would be very fruitful.  The same countries would also make excellent partners for secure communications using QKD from space.

          Place: Create a Space manufacturing Hub in the West Midlands allowing sectors such as automotive to pivot into areas of new opportunities.

          Impacts of low Earth orbit satellites on research activities: LEO is crucial for Earth Observation for; mapping of magnetic and gravity fields, critical inputs into net-zero carbon, climate change, precision agriculture and PNT for defence.

          Create a technology demonstrator satellite programme to accelerate technology transition into industry.


2.5.   SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY: What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications?

2.5.1.   Navigation systems

Position, navigation and timing (PNT) information is vital in transport, communications, energy distribution, finance and emergency response. However, satellite systems suffer from several vulnerabilities, for example being easy to jam and susceptible to space weather. Even a temporary loss of GNSS could have serious consequences for critical national infrastructure[i]. Quantum technology can mitigate this threat through new atomic clocks, based on single trapped ions or groups of atoms in optical lattices, known as optical or quantum clocks. On the ground, these can provide backup timing. In space, they may be used to upgrade satellite navigation systems.

2.5.2.   British time

A 2017 ESA report[ii] on quantum technologies in space suggests a goal of demonstrating in-orbit optical clock technology within 10 years. The UK can stay involved in ESA’s work, while at the same time using the cost-saving developments from the National Quantum Technology programme to build a commercial optical clock for space activity.


2.5.3.   Earth observation including climate change

Space gives us a commanding view of our planet. Among many other things, satellites watch the weather, uncover natural resources and monitor water supplies.

The Earth observation (EO) market is huge. In 2017, global revenue was $43.7 billion, with annual growth of 14.8%. The UK has approximately 100 EO companies, the largest number in Europe[iii].

Quantum technology can bring many benefits to EO. Gravity sensors using cold-atom technology can give a detailed picture of water and mineral resources, as well as ice sheets and volcanic activity – helping to predict natural hazards such as drought and flooding, and giving us a clearer picture of climate change. Quantum sensors for magnetic fields could trace ocean currents, and monitor waves and melting ice. Quantum imaging systems could give new eyes to the next generation of earth observing missions, while quantum computing could take on the enormous challenge of data processing.

Nine out of ten natural disasters are related to water[iv]. Since 1900 droughts have caused the deaths of over 11 million people and affected over 2 billion – more than any other physical hazard[v]. Half the world’s people live in areas that experience water scarcity[vi], and a third of the world’s biggest groundwater systems are in distress[vii]. So there is an urgent need for better global water management, and early warning systems for drought and flooding. This requires the ability to look below the ground, to monitor aquifers and groundwater, and the most effective way to do that is through gravity.

Space-based detectors can reveal changes in reservoirs, glaciers and ground water through the slight changes they create in the local force of gravity. The NASA and ESA missions Gravity Recovery and Climate Experience (GRACE) and Gravity field and Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) have already shown the potential impact for irrigation, water management and disaster prevention. For example, GRACE measurements over India and Bangladesh showed a marked decrease in water reserves[viii] as a result of increasing exploitation, followed by some replenishment after a change in policies and extraction practices. Observation of ground water and soil moisture can be used to predict droughts, and GRACE data has already improved drought prediction in the USA and Europe[ix]. Quantum gravity sensors in space offer a step change in performance in spatial and time resolution significantly beyond current conventional systems.


  1. A Space Cluster for the West Midlands and the UK’s space ecosystem: assets, skills, and competitive advantage that can fuel growth

3.1.   REGIONAL: What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy be?

In order to support the development of future satellite ‘mega’ constellations and achieve the UK’s ambition to become a hub for launch and access to space, the UK will need to continue to grow and develop its manufacturing capability to support the necessary scaled production of new spacecraft.

Building this capability is reliant on developing regional space clusters, based on a proven ‘latent potential’ from the regions’ mix of assets, technologies, skills, knowledge and expertise (i.e. their innovation ecosystem). As part of a UK Space Agency-funded project: ‘Local Space Sector Cluster and Supply Chain Developmentx, UoB have researched to what extent the West Midlands region has the potential to contribute to the UK’s increasing space capability. We provided evidence that the West Midlands has the right mix of existing assets, technologies, skills, knowledge and expertise that amount to a significant latent competitive advantage.

To realise the growth potential in the West Midlands (and potentially other regions) there needs to be dedicated regional programmes of activity to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure. There can no longer be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the National Space Strategy, but instead it needs to account for regional variation in terms of their Innovation ecosystem.

Universities, as both R&D producers and skills developers, are an integral part of this ecosystem, particularly when new technology or R&D-based opportunities appear. The alignment (or misalignment) between university R&D strengths and local firm-level innovation is a key component of this dynamism. A close match between the R&D and skills produced by local universities and demand by local firms and strong ‘absorptive capacity’ enables the region to exploit and benefit from new knowledge, expertise, or technology for improved competitive advantage. The alternative, in less well-aligned ecosystems, is where graduates leave to work elsewhere and university R&D outputs are exploited by business elsewhere, nationally or internationally. It is important that the new strategy works with universities to focus on aligning R&D strengths and local firm-level innovation.

3.2.   REGIONAL: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base?

Here we will limit our focus to our research on the West Midlands and divide our analysis between the upstream and downstream sector.

3.2.1. Upstream Space Sector Strengths in the West Midlands 

A unique strength of the West-Midlands is our manufacturing sector (aerospace, automotive, and rail). The West Midlands is a globally significant sector for advanced manufacturing, assembling a critical mass of globally competitive business and high-tech Small Medium Enterprises (SME’s) operating across a range of transport-related sectors, and in particular aerospace, automotive, and rail. Within the region we have strong supply-chains mobilised around key capabilities (such as engines, electromechanical systems etc.). These industries (and in particular aerospace) share close similarities with space and thus demonstrate strong latent space potential.

The ‘space manufacturing’ sub-sector can be further broken down into a list of ‘hardware and materials’, ‘component and parts’, ‘assemblies’, ‘sub-systems’ and ‘systems’ for the manufacturing of satellites and launch vehicle. These five tiers vary considerably in the degree to which they are specialised and bespoke to space manufacturing. For example, a large proportion of the hardware, materials, components and parts span other advanced manufacturing sectors (such as, automotive, rail, aerospace and medical). Therefore, existing manufacturing businesses in the West Midlands have the potential to diversify and ‘pivot’ into the space sector.

For instance, the aerospace sector has many parallels with the space industry, working to strict and often bespoke specifications, requiring upfront investment with long lead times to a return, requiring extensive quality management testing and documentation, and operating within a complex regulatory and international trading environment. These capabilities and strengths provide a strong basis through which the (West) Midlands can contribute to the UK and global space manufacturing market, and in particular the materials and components (and sub-system) segment(s). These strengths/capabilities are not currently being leveraged, so resulting in lost opportunities. However, whilst many suppliers can participate within the space manufacturing supply chain, they are deterred from doing so due to their limited awareness of the sector and the opportunities, low production volumes and their bespoke nature, and requirements for strict quality management systems and documentation.


3.2.2. Downstream sector strengths in the West Midlands 

Whilst the West Midlands is home to only a handful of downstream space application businesses, the region combines latent space application capabilities with important end-user sectors for space data/services, creating a powerful value-chain ecosystem for innovation, business growth, and end-user benefit.

Our latent space application capabilities include data analytics, image analysis, artificial intelligence, machine learning, gaming technologies. The region hosts more than 14,000 Technology and Digital businesses (5% UK total), employing over 70,000 people, representing the UKs largest tech and digital sector outside of London. Many companies sit within existing clusters, such as Innovation Birmingham, the area of Digbeth and Leamington Spa (gaming technologies), Birmingham and Solihull (Data driven healthcare and technologies), and Malvern (cyber security). Over the period 2015-2025 the GVA from the West Midlands Tech and Digital sector is forecast to increase from £5.7bn to more than £7bn.

The West Midlands also holds particular strengths in key user sectors that have the potential to benefit significantly from space-enabled data and services, including future transport (connected and autonomous vehicles, digital rail, etc.), modern services, health and life sciences (connected data-driven services), and agriculture 4.0 (precision agriculture and autonomous farming systems). Combining satellite-enabled applications (including, ubiquitous connectivity, remote sensing, and precision navigation and time), space-enabled systems and services have the potential to transform these end-user sectors, addressing major industrial and societal challenges and driving innovation, competitiveness, and growth.


3.3.   REGIONAL: What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications?

The new UK space Strategy should focus on dedicated programmes of regional activity, which:

          Leverage/build anchor facilities within regions (such as, the Manufacturing Technology Centre in the West Midlands), that play a central role in supporting the space cluster, raising the profile for the region, and providing a focal point for activity,

          Cluster regional stakeholders, assets, facilities, expertise, activities, and initiatives that have relevance to the space industry,

          Coordinate cluster activities towards strategic policy objectives, including:

          Integrate and empower a West Midlands space cluster to be connected within and across regions through structured programmes of activity.


A UK space and satellite infrastructure strategy to allocate and direct resources to the West Midlands to establish a world-class Space Cluster and eco-system for national and international leadership and economic growth.

Comment on Midlands Innovation

We wish to note that the submission from Midlands Innovation (MI) includes a combined perspective for the Midlands as whole that draws on and recognises the complementary strengths of the East and West Midlands. The MI Space Group has recently published a brochure on capabilities that identifies 900 experts in 8 institutions in the Midlands.


(June 2021)



[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/satellite-derived-time-and-position-blackett-review

[ii] http://qtspace.eu:8080/sites/testqtspace.eu/files/QTspace_Stretegic_Report_Intermediate.pdf

[iii] http://earsc.org/news/results-eo-industry-survey-september-2017

[iv] https://www.unisdr.org/2015/docs/climatechange/COP21_WeatherDisastersReport_2015_FINAL.pdf

[v] www.fao.org/3/aq191e/aq191e.pdf

[vi] https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000261424

[vii] https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2015WR017349

[viii] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921818114000526

[ix] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022169412003228


xi https://midlandsinnovation.org.uk/write/MediaUploads/Networks/Space/MI_Space_Group_Expertise_Report_Final.pdf