[SatNews] "We cracked open the whisky when we won our first space-systems bid."
Stevenson Astrosat, one of Scotland's space technology companies, is accelerating into spacecraft systems in the latest rocket-powered boost to its business growth trajectory. The Edinburgh-based company, which almost uniquely in the UK merges satellite and ground-based data to provide valuable information to a wide range of sectors, already has a thriving Earth observation and satellite communications business.
It has transformed the way space-based information can be used to bring previously unattainable benefits to energy, transport and aquaculture enterprises— and even Bollywood film companies.
Now it has won bids for spacecraft systems, the systems and instruments a spacecraft must carry depending upon the data it will gather and the functions it will carry out. Their complexity varies greatly but all must endure the hostile environment of space.
Steve Lee, founder and CEO of Astrosat which stands for Astro Science and Technology said: "We cracked open the whisky when we won our first space-systems bid. I've wanted to build spacecraft systems for a while - it's something I really care about."
With chief technology officer Alan McLarney, who is equally enthusiastic about the new division, Lee believes the new venture has the potential to build substantially on this year's projected turnover of £750,000, more than 60 percent up on last year.
Lee, an Astrophysicist, post-graduated in astronautics at Cranfield University, the UK's specialist center for science and technology, like McLarney whose undergraduate field was aeronautics. With the UK a "desert" for space-related work, they both had other careers before Lee founded Astrosat in 2012.
He said: "The time was right. It was becoming clear to me that the commercialisation of space was ready to take off. Putting satellites up is an expensive business and space agencies were reaching out to commercial interests to create new funding streams."
What differentiates Astrosat is that it takes data from various satellites and libraries and merges it with data mined from earth-based resources. One of these is a land vehicle, similar to the Google Earth camera cars, which can collect specific data at particular points of interest in various spectral bands beyond the visible. This combination allowed the company to found ThermCERT, a thermal and carbon efficiency reporting tool which won the coveted European Copernicus prize for Astrosat and which has now been spun off.
It is using similar data conflations and configurations to trial WaveCERT (it’s second Copernicus award) which will allow marine renewable energy companies to decide on ideal locations for installation without the need for costly marine surveys.
Astrosat's technology can tell the aquaculture industry where to find fish farming sites with the necessary flows of water; it can track back oil spills, which are clearly visible from space, to help trace the culprits; and it can predict landslides using radar satellites, potentially saving huge disruptions to road and rail networks.
Steve Lee said: "We have even been approached by a major Bollywood film producer who wants us to beat film piracy by satellite transmission of films to the Far East with novel DRM. The de-encryption of the material would only take place once it ‘landed' at the right place."
Astrosat now has 13 people working in what Lee calls his "ideas factory". As well as his astrophysics and McLarney's aeronautics, they also have a robotics engineer, a building engineer, an oceanographer, a hydrographer and a geoscientist.
In order to be compliant in bids within the European Space Agency and other governmental bodies with which it deals, the company has taken on its own retained in-house lawyer. Mr Lee paid tribute to other pioneering UK space companies such as cube and nano-satellite company Clyde Space and Bright Ascension whose in-orbit UKUBE-1 satellite—designed and built in Scotland—had great success as UK Space Agency's first cubesat mission. He said: "There is a great camaraderie in the space community, and a genuine satisfaction in each other's achievements. Our sustained home-grown space agency would create much greater access to space and it should be strongly encouraged.
"The UK government has taken significant steps to reinvigorate the UK space industry and its appreciation of the commercial possibilities is driving innovation and enterprise which I think will be of long-term benefit."
Mr Lee said his ambition was "to be the Bell Labs [the historic R&D facilities which are the hallmark of invention] of space." He said: "I want to build an industry."