The UK Space industry is healthy, but is it understood?

Artist's rendition of a satellite - 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Last week the UK Space Agency released the Executive Summary of its biennial report into the Size and Health of the UK Space Industry. It gives a positive overall picture with the industry having a turnover of £11.3bn in 2012/13; it’s growing at an average annual rate of 7.3%, exports are expanding and we are on track to achieve the aim of having a £40bn UK space industry by 2030. Despite all the positive news, the report raised questions on how well understood the industry is.

The industry is generally split into two sectors, upstream and downstream. Where upstream refers to the part of the industry that build and launch satellites and sensors into space; whilst downstream encompasses the products and services that use the data those objects collect. However, according to the report there is a growing belief that this definition is no longer fit for purpose as it doesn’t reflect the whole industry. Instead the report has split the industry into three sectors: upstream (infrastructure and technology), downstream (direct space services) and the new sector, the wider space economy – which covers space-enabled value added applications.

Evolving definitions is something that happens as industries, technologies and knowledge matures, but we would questions whether providing this split within the downstream activity is helpful. Pixalytics is an Earth observation company; we develop products and services from space data, offer consultancy support and undertake image processing. According to the new definitions our products and services are considered downstream activities, whereas our consultancy and image processing are part of the wider space economy. It’s rarely, if ever, true, that using space data alone can be used to answer customer’s questions. Instead it’s about integrating that data with other information and knowledge, to create a product that adds value for the customer. Hence, a huge part of our work will always span the downstream and wider space economy sectors. So do these new changes create more definition or confusion?

The report is based, amongst other things, on an industrial survey. Invitations to participate in the survey were sent to 228 companies who were judged to be part of the wider space economy. Only 12 replied, that’s a response rate of just 5.26%! We need to understand why there is such a poor response rate, is it apathy, a lack of understanding that they use space services or do they not consider themselves defined by their data sources? If a company uses satellite data, overflights, in-situ measurements and scientific modelling to deliver their services, are they part of the wider space economy? We use desks and bookshelves in our office, but it doesn’t make us a furniture business.

Like many things, communication is the key. If we are evolving our definition of the industry we can’t do it alone. We need to engage with the companies within the industry, and crucially with those we are trying to bring in. Inclusive discussion, education and understanding at all levels are vital, if we want to develop a vibrant and participative wider space economy.