Space is now critical infrastructure. Australian governments need to catch-up.
It’s crunch time for Australia’s space industry.
We’re three years into an ambitious drive towards 20,000 new jobs and a tripling in economic activity by 2030. But we’re already falling behind.
The industry-backed Space + Spatial Industry Growth Roadmap report warns Australia is yet to make a mark on global markets. And that’s a necessity if these sectors are to thrive and provide the sovereign capabilities our governments crave.
“The Australian space industry is kicking goals. You’ve only got a look at companies like Gilmore Space – they’re a bit of a poster child,” says the acting chairman of the industry group behind the report, Glenn Cockerton. “And there are lots of others doing very specialised, maybe a little less glamorous, work – such as the geospatial digital twin examples. They’re demonstrably kicking goals.”
But the scoresheet isn’t as healthy as it should be.
The roadmap reports Australian startups remain heavily dependent on international partners to gain space capabilities – whether through launch systems, intellectual property or manufacturing assets.
“Australia is not capturing a proportionate share of the space marketplace,” the report finds. “As a proportion of GDP, Australia ranks 21st despite having the 13th largest economy. The Australian government spent less on space in 2021 than Spain and Belgium, two nations with a smaller GDP.”
The problems, says Cockerton, are that Australia needs to faster recognise how geospatial technologies can drive new economic efficiencies, and the fact governments continue to buy offshore technologies and services instead of nurturing local startups.
But the biggest problem, Cockerton told Cosmos, is the workforce.
“At the moment, the space and spatial industries cannot grow fast enough to meet demand in Australia because of labour force constraints,” he says. “Australia’s got to look at how it manages its workforce and equips itself with the skills we need. And we’re not alone. This is a global problem.”
Despite the challenges, Cockerton says space must be accepted as a new critical infrastructure.
“If we fail to seize this initiative, we’re going to undershoot the growth targets,” he says. “We’re going to get left behind to some degree or another – depending on how fast the industry grows under its own devices. And we won’t be able to lessen the risk of reliance on overseas assets and services. So it’s just not a good place for Australia to be in.”
Getting data to our fingertips
The Space + Spatial Industry Growth Roadmap highlights digital twin technology as a promising pathway towards the desired growth.
We already have tiny digital twins in our pockets. The way GPS mapping systems monitor traffic flows to find the quickest route to a destination is just one example.
Similar systems can provide real-time information on power grids, production lines, delivery vehicles or the status of services and facilities in a school or office building.
Digital twins can scale up to be interactive models of what’s happening in an entire city or state.
Victoria has invested $37.4 million in a four-year project to bring together public records and data, ranging from earth observation surveys to tracking vegetation and water levels, power networks, district planning codes, and land subdivisions.
“What’s the future of digital twins? Is it these big monolithic single systems that try to be a one-stop shop for everyone? Probably not,” says Cockerton. “But that’s where we’re at on the development pathway right now.”
Ultimately, as more and more sensors become available in space and on the ground tracking a greater variety of things, Cockerton says this will likely evolve into a subscription model.
“We see it as a development in the economy that will lead to much greater demand for our products and services. It will deliver much more value, and many will be highly visible in terms of the public perception and understanding of what ‘space and spatial’ can deliver.
“With the right information, we can do things faster and better than we’ve ever been able to do in the past.”
The problem, however, is securing access to the right information, ensuring it is accurate and reliable and processing it into a usable format.
“Bear in mind that geospatial has been around for 30-odd years. It’s not like it’s brand new,” Cockerton says.
“It’s been steadily evolving over three or four decades, and we’ve been coping with change for all that period.”
What’s changed is access to low earth orbit.
“If we fail to seize this initiative, we’re going to undershoot the growth targets. We’re going to get left behind to some degree or another.”Glenn Cockerton
“What’s happened in space is that technology has reduced the cost of space activity to the point where it’s much more accessible to a whole range of people other than state actors. It’s now a commercial operation. This technology allows for things to happen today that we wouldn’t have even dreamed of five or ten years ago.”
Algorithms can extract from satellite photographs whether or not pastoral lessors are over-grazing their land. They can identify algal blooms and fire hazards.
Other satellite services relay the level of water in tanks in remote outback stations, the position and load of crop harvesters, and how mining equipment is performing. Not to mention tracking fires, floods and other weather events.
“People expect this technology to be available and used to help manage and alert people to events as they unfold,” Cockerton says. “Standards have been raised. Expectations have been raised. If these services are taken away, things can get very messy very quickly.”
The new critical infrastructure
“Our objective number one is really moving forward with the National Space Missions,” Cockerton says of the Roadmap’s recommendations. “They are a really important catalyst. They spur innovation. They really push industry to achieve big things. And effectively, it’s something government can control. They can pump-prime the growth that we’re looking for.”
But he says, governments – both state and federal – also need to recognise space is now a critical infrastructure.
“Australia is heavily reliant on overseas provided services,” Cockerton explains. “If that provision is disrupted, it will have heavy financial and social fallout.”
The GPS system is a former US military navigation service that has been made public. But it’s already subject to jamming by hostile nations.
Global timing satellites ensure modern high-speed transactions – such as buying and selling shares – can’t be “gamed” by exploiting communications “lag” between one side of the world and another.
“We’ll never be 100 per cent self-reliant,” says Cockerton. “But, by the same token, we are very exposed, and it would be in our national interest to reduce that to a more manageable level.”
More in Cosmos Weekly
Originally published by Cosmos as It has a roadmap, but Australia is struggling to capitalise in its drive to space
Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.