Australia needs a space agency before startups are lured away: Fleet

Nanosatellite startup Fleet is calling on the Australian government to establish a dedicated space agency to support locally based rocket and satellite technology innovators.

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Nanosatellite startup Fleet is urging the Australian government to establish a domestic space agency before local space technology companies are lured away from the region.

Fleet co-founder and CEO Flavia Tata Nardini told ZDNet that while fostering innovation is the central theme in many government discussions, space tech appears to be largely absent from such talks.

"There is an office in Canberra dedicated to space licensing, space activities. But what we require is a space agency, a serious committed one, with a CEO or a director with the right knowledge; then we need a road map," Tata Nardini argued.

Having previously worked as an aerospace engineer in Europe, which relies on the European Space Agency, Tata Nardini said a domestic space agency would boost economic and employment growth, strengthen national security, and inspire the next generation of space innovators.

"[The] next industrial revolution is going to start in space. Emerging space technologies and the data they return will usher in mass-scale efficiencies here on Earth, shifting industries like mining, logistics, technology, farming, mobility, connectivity, and environmental care, for good," Tata Nardini wrote in an open letter to the federal government.

At present, Australia is one of only two OECD countries that do not have a space agency, according to the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA). SIAA claims the Australian space industry amounts to less than 1 percent of the global space economy, generating $3 billion to $4 billion in annual revenue and employing 11,000 people.

While Tata Nardini said that this is "not insignificant", the SIAA said this number can be doubled in the next five years -- provided the government established a new agency.

Tata Nardini stressed that the problem is not so much about funding as it is about leadership and strategy.

"The issue at stake isn't funding, though a government-led commitment would certainly help. The issue is a national, coherent strategy that promotes our national goals and engages Australia in the establishment of global space protocols," she wrote.

A spokesperson from the office of Minister for Industry, Innovation, and Science Arthur Sinodinos told ZDNet that the federal government's focus is on ensuring "the operating environment is appropriate to innovation and development of space technologies, combined with coordination and international cooperation".

"The government is also planning and preparing for the next generation of civil space technologies and capabilities by putting in place the legislative and regulatory reforms and platforms aimed at simplifying regulatory arrangements, spurring innovation, and reducing barriers to participation in the space industry," the spokesperson added.

Australia is a "passive consumer" of satellite data, heavily dependent on international partnerships -- such as with Europe, Japan, and the US -- for purchasing the satellite data used by individuals and businesses every day, including for insurance assessment, managing natural disasters, and weather forecasting, the SIAA stated in a paper.

The SIAA argued that there is a "vital national interest" in maintaining the infrastructure, capabilities, and international relationships required to secure access to satellite data sources.

"A key issue in the development of our national space policy should therefore be the securing of long-term access for strategic purposes, preferably from Australian territory, to foreign-owned space-segment capabilities, both military and civil," the SIAA said.

"Furthermore, as the geopolitical environment changes, Australia needs to become a technology contributor to those partnerships, or it risks significantly rising costs or, even, loss of access ... Australia would also be well advised to consider ways to reduce its dependence on the traditional data sources, and consider its own national priorities in the development of new systems."

Tata Nardini acknowledged that international collaboration is necessary, especially given Australia is "geographically far from the rest of the world". However, a "central agency" that provides "a unified voice" would make such collaboration a lot easier, she added.

"Fleet is competing at a global level with companies that are backed up by their [country's] space agencies," Tata Nardini said.

A 2002 study by professor HR Hertzfeld found a significant return to companies that work with NASA on its research contracts. The 15 companies studied, which all commercialised technologies born in NASA labs, received $1.5 billion in benefits from a NASA R&D investment of $64 million.

While the numbers vary from study to study, one estimates a $10 return on investment for every $1 of NASA expenditure, largely through spinoffs and licensing agreements.

"The impact of [an Australian space agency] will be huge in five years' time, so we have to start this process now," Tata Nardini said.

"I really hope there will be more companies like Fleet that can start and make things happen for real. If there are more unicorn companies that can be globally impacting in the coming years, or if there is more commercialisation of university research, more unified activities, it means more jobs."

Fleet is one in a growing cohort of startups looking to tackle connectivity through smaller and more affordable satellites and rockets. It is seeking to provide free internet connectivity to devices and sensors all over the world, especially in locations where the "tyranny of distance" is preventing businesses from using devices such as mining plants or farms in rural or regional areas.

The Adelaide-headquartered startup recently raised AU$5 million from a consortium of investors including Blackbird VC, Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, James Schultz from Earth Space Robotics, and Horizon Partners.

Cannon-Brookes classified Fleet as one of those "rare" ideas that "gets the adrenaline pumping".

However, Tata Nardini said she is concerned that when Fleet opens up its Series B round in the future, investors might pressure the startup to relocate to a country where it will receive better government support.

"I don't want investors to bring Fleet outside of Australia just because we are not supported in a serious way in the country," she said.

"I don't want to anymore answer the question, 'Why you're creating this amazing company in Australia? Why not in the United States?' Australia is an amazing country, people are great, R&D is amazing, universities are fantastic. So I really want to stay here."

Last month, Gilmour Space Technologies, a hybrid-engine rocket engineering startup with operations in Queensland and Singapore, announced that it had raised AU$5 million in a Series A round led by Sydney-based Blackbird VC, with participation from Silicon Valley-based 500 Startups.

Gilmour Space expects to launch its first commercial rocket, Eris, to suborbital space by the end of 2018, and to low earth orbit by 2020.

"Our Eris orbital launch vehicle will be able to take up to 380kg to [low earth orbit], and more dedicated and low-cost small payload launches would enable even smaller players to make a business case for space. Eventually, we also plan to build low-cost vehicles for human spaceflight and exploration," said Adam Gilmour, founder and CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies.

Meanwhile, New Zealand startup Rocket Lab has already achieved unicorn status, attracting $148 million in funding since its founding in 2015.

Last month, the company launched its Electron vehicle -- designed to put satellites weighing about 150 kilograms into orbits 500 kilometres above Earth -- from a site in New Zealand, and is looking at Queensland as one of its next launch locations.

Rocket Lab said previously that its customers -- which include NASA, Planet, Spire, and Moon Express -- will be able to use the satellites in space to provide services such as optimised crop monitoring, improved weather reporting, "internet from space", natural disaster prediction, and search and rescue services, the startup said.

International companies such as Space X and OneWeb are already deep in its mission to create communications satellites as the backbone for a global broadband service.

Updated at 5.30pm AEST, June 13: Added quote from the office of Minister for Industry, Innovation, and Science Arthur Sinodinos

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