Written Evidence Submitted by FAIR-SPACE Hub
The UK is very well placed as a space nation with over 1000 organisations servicing the industry including, large industry, SME, research institutes and universities. These range from research through to in-satellite operations; from operations management though to manufacturing for space. The UK Space Agency (UKSA) is ideally placed to bring these together and enhance the national capability. As the UK realigns its global partnerships post-Brexit, our existing partnerships with the European Space Agency must be maintained to ensure and enhance the position of the UK globally. Additionally, continued support by having access to Horizon Europe is very important and exclusions should not include those that can impact the UK’s capability and position in Space.
Looking ahead to the future, the increasing importance and application of autonomous robotics in space is rapidly becoming apparent. The FAIR-SPACE Hub works closely with leading academics in the field of space robotics in the UK as well as UK industry partners. As a member of the UKspace industry group In Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing (IOSM), FAIR-SPACE have joined with the Satellite Applications Catapult and Astroscale UK to develop an IOSM road map for the UKSA. The Space Growth Partnership (2018) also identified the IOSM market as one of the key growth areas of the UK space industry. The UK government must act quickly to be able to position itself as a leader in the IOSM space sector. A requisite to this is an update to the 2015 space policy and the involvement of the newly formed Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA).
The UK space sector is currently very strong despite the relatively small budget in comparison to that of other countries such as the USA or China. The reason for this is the development of low-cost small satellite platforms such as those developed by SSTL (a company born and spun out from the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey). This has further spawned a massive global interest in cubesats as an affordable means to access and test novel space hardware, as developed for example by AAC ClydeSpace, and satellite services, as developed for example by Astroscale UK. There is in fact a burgeoning field called Newspace where companies such as Arqit are developing and employing quantum techniques to provide greater security to assets that involve communication with and between satellites. It has recently been reported that Arqit are the first UK space company to emerge unicorn - a startup valued more than $1 billion – after a bid to merge with Centricus Acquisition Corp.
The UK is also considered a leader in robotics and autonomous systems technology for space. UK companies have won significant ESA projects and UK universities have internationally recognized expertise in space robotics and autonomous systems. The UK also offers test facilities both in industry and academia which are unique and/or world leading (e.g. the Mars Yard at AIRBUS and the National Satellite Test Facility at RAL-Space). The UK has also established strong links between industry and academia though initiatives such as FAIR-SPACE. There has been extensive analysis to determine how UK technology developed for space can be applied to other sectors. An example include the FAIR-SPACE gripper, which has been developed for space debris removal, has now been selected to progress to stage 3 of the Competition funded by the NDA, Innovate UK and BEIS to be tested for Nuclear decommissioning at Sellafield. There has been less work to see how existing terrestrial technology from other sectors could be applied to space, this lack of cross sectorial approach is a potential weakness. The UK is innovative but historically weak on capitalizing on good ideas/successes perhaps due to its focus on short/medium term goals rather than on medium/long term goals.
Another potential weakness is on talent. Although there is a strong home-grown space expertise, this will necessarily require augmenting with talent from other countries as time moves on. It is important that the UK is seen as inclusive, for example now many Europeans do not see the UK currently as a welcoming place to work. We need to ensure that there are processes and a culture in place to improve and promote inclusivity.
Back the winners. The UK currently lacks the government backing or private infrastructure of investment to support significant innovations in space. The USA has a very mature private investment approach whereas China, for example, leverages its government backing. Although the UK is unlikely to compete directly with either the USA or China, it is vital that the UK develops a focused space strategy otherwise resources may be spread too thinly to give the UK any unique or world leading capacity. Furthermore, this strategy must be developed quickly to keep up with the rapid developments in areas such as space robotics and AI for space.
The main areas of technology that should be the focus of the strategy are i) autonomy - to provide autonomous operation, enhancing human performance and allowing operation where latency makes teleoperation impractical. ii) mobility and manipulation – to enhance exploration and servicing of existing systems. iii) sensing and perception - to provide better environmental and situational awareness. iv) enhanced human robot interaction – to reduce workload, allow human – robot collaboration and enhanced teleoperation. v) systems engineering – to ensure safety and security in the new autonomous space systems.
The well reported UK STEM skills shortage is particularly stark in robotics and autonomous systems. With this technology seeing increasing application across many sectors this problem is likely to increase and specialist skilled labour shortages will threaten the strategy if it is not addressed.
It is important that the role of all the catapults is considered and understood so that ideas and resources that reside in any one area can be shared across the various relevant catapults. The UK should build on existing avenues such as the Space Industry Act 2018 and other initiatives.
There is a need to ensure new developments coming out of UK Universities and from UK funded research remain in and are exploited by UK industry. The UK should also recognise the importance of resilience; systems must be developed that recognise that systems fail or are compromised and black swans do occur. In FAIR-SPACE one small project, RESI-SPACE, is looking at developing processes and regulation for secure and resilient systems for the space eco-system. The UK has a strong community in resilience theory, for example Cyber Resilience in Automotive, that we can and should build upon.