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Feature - 13 August 2020 (ComputerWeekly)

Following the news of Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) aerospace and satellite communications division, cloud services providers might be wondering if they are missing a trick by not targeting this market too.

Paul Kostek, IEEE senior member and an advisory systems engineer at Seattle consultancy Base2 Solutions, says the broader cloud provider opportunity is real. The biggest mistake is to underestimate it, thinking of aerospace as one-off or public research projects, when the reality is often one of commercial expansion.

“A lot of people are thinking of the cloud as basically a ground-based system,” he says. “But one of the big issues in the aerospace and satellite world is all the data being collected and what you do with it. Ground station development is way behind, because it’s not sexy or cool like building a SpaceX rocket.”

Ground stations typically require massive processing power to collect and manage all the data, whether it is navigation data or communications to and from weather balloons, planes, satellites or rockets.

It is typically about internet of things (IoT) capabilities, edge-powered applications, and how to manage all of that – and it is becoming “a really big deal”, says Kostek.

“Most people don’t even realise that SpaceX is already heavily engaged in sending up many satellites,” he says. “This is really one of these things that’s about to catch up on people. The cloud industry will suddenly realise there’s a huge opportunity.”

Amazon alone has been approved by the US Federal Communications Commission to launch 3,236 satellites as part of its $10bn Project Kuiper satellite project. Project Kuiper, entailing a “tremendous amount of data flying around, to and from satellites and on the ground”, will boost internet coverage to rural and developing areas.

In military communications, demand is expanding for unmanned aircraft from drones to flying “aircraft carriers” or even “wingmen” for fighter support. Meanwhile, countries from the US to China plan to return to the Moon.

Even space tourism might be only a couple of years away. Beyond collecting, monitoring and managing data on the space vehicles themselves, passengers will doubtless want to record and transmit live blogs, pictures and videos. And there are “probably a hundred” companies around the world, such as Uber Elevate, that are developing air taxi services, says Kostek.

“Companies will start to look at all that and say ‘I should be in space, doing something’,” he adds.

UK aerospace industry

In the UK, the aerospace industry as a whole generated £35bn in GDP in 2017, stoked by assorted government initiatives.

The UK has the second-largest aerospace industry in Europe, with 2,500 companies, 2,300 of which have fewer than 10 employees. Government documents suggest that gross value added (GVA) for aerospace has grown by 30% since 2010, compared with 4% for manufacturing as a whole. The global market for aircraft, spacecraft and parts imports, excluding the UK, was worth about £142bn in 2016.

A steady stream of satellites and related services have seen lift-off across the UK. Airbus UK recently signed another contract with the Ministry of Defence, to develop its Skynet 6A military communications satellite for a 2025 launch.

The contract includes manufacture, cyber protection, assembly, integration, test and launch. Related programmes include new secure telemetry, tracking and command systems, launch, in-orbit testing and ground segment updates to the current Skynet 5 system.

Market research company IBISWorld estimates that the UK satellite communications industry expanded by 8.7% from 2014-2019, with key players including Airbus Defence and Space, SES and Arqiva.  The largest share is broadcasting, with the rest spread across data, phone/mobile communications and Earth observation. . .


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