Space competitors “eating Australia’s lunch?”

One of Australia’s most successful technology and space innovators is tired of hearing excuses.

“I want to address a few what I call ‘furfies’ – things we’re always hearing about the space industry and why we can’t do it,” University of South Australia’s Professor Craig Smith told an assembly of academic and industry figures in Adelaide yesterday.

“One I keep hearing is that “space is hard”. And this is interpreted by people in funding as “space is expensive”, he quipped. “Can I just say, really?”

The SmartSatCRC Chair in Telecommunications and former Electro Optic Systems (EOS) Chief Technology Officer and executive says this may have been true in the 1960s and 1970s. But not now.

“Space has never been more accessible. The cost of launch is going down dramatically. The tools and technology have improved. You can actually now go out and buy satellites – or at least their vital components. So the capability is there and the barrier to entry has never been lower.

“So I think it’s time to embrace space rather than use it as an excuse not to do things – because you actually can,” he stated.

The SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) conference has drawn academics and industry figures from across the country to compare notes and hear pitches from some of the CRC’s 60 scholarship PhD students.

“By the way, 10 per cent of these have already graduated,” SmartSatCRC CEO Emeritus Professor Andy Koronios said during the opening address.

He added the CRC has launched some 150 collaborative industry-academic projects since it was founded in 2017. “We’ve completed about 60 of those, and many out of those 60 are already on a trajectory of maturation so they can actually commercialise. Because technology by itself is not really that useful, and we’ve seen that in Australia before”.

Professor Smith pulled no punches while addressing attitudes towards – and within – Australia’s embryonic space industry: “Another statement I keep hearing is ‘our economy is too small to support a defence and space industry’. And on that, I’m going to call bullshit.”

He points out that Australia has the same GDP as Russia.

“So why can’t we have a space and defence industry like theirs? ‘Oh, they’ve got five times the population’ is the excuse,” he said.

“Well, okay. That’s a fair point. But look at Sweden, Israel, and Norway. They’ve got half our population and a third of our GDP. And they have some very significant space and defence companies.”

He pointed to names including Navantia, Rafael, Elbit, and Saab.

“So all I’d say is – they’re eating our lunch.

“And the question is why?”

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He believes the answer is one of scale.

“In Australia, we’ve got lots of little companies doing nice things. But no one has the size, capability, breadth of capability and depth of pockets to grab the projects we actually need,” he says.

Professor Smith says he believes Australia’s space-related advanced technology industry is experiencing the same “natural political cycle” all industries do.

“There’s been a change in government. It’s decided it needs to be seen to be doing something different. So it’s pulled innovation funding,” he said. “It’ll come back in due course. In what form, how much, and when, are the questions. And I think that’s what the current government’s doing – thinking about how best to utilise the amount of money put into innovation.”

Meanwhile, the shift in priorities will likely result in industry consolidation.

“My view is, is that really such a bad thing,” he asked.

Smith pointed to his own history and the scale of collaboration needed to develop reliable high-bandwidth optical communications between ground and space.

“None of us partners had either the technology or the means to take on this project alone. None of us could even talk to each other,” he said. “It took patience, but eventually, we were able to solve the unsolvable. And it didn’t even cost all that much. So collaboration works.”

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