Start-ups leading charge towards final frontier

Start-ups leading charge towards final frontier

By: 
Trinity Chua
09/01/19, 05:56 pm

SINGAPORE (Dec 31): Singapore does not have a dedicated space agency, nor does it have a rocket launchpad. Yet, its space industry is taking off, led by a host of homegrown small and large companies. And that would significantly boost the small country’s interconnectivity and big data push as it aims to become a smart nation.

Prior to this year, most developments in this sector have been focused on earth observation purposes, say observers. For instance, ST Engineering Electronics’ TeLEOS-2 can perform all-weather round-the-clock monitoring. Now, start-ups are building everything from rockets to laser telecommunications in space.

These developments come on the back of several global trends. For starters, satellites are becoming cheaper and smaller, thanks to improving technologies. The race for big data and smart, interconnected cities has also spurred the commercialisation of space technology. About 75% of space activity globally involves commercial products and services. According to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the sector is projected to grow eight times over the next three decades to US$2.7 trillion ($3.7 trillion), up from just US$350 billion last year.

In Singapore, research in local universities is boosting the country’s space tech capabilities as well. In January, the engineering faculty of the National University of Singapore established the Satellite Technology and Research Centre, a partnership with DSO National Laboratories, Singapore’s national defence research agency. One of its aims is to develop the use of miniaturised satellites flying in formation. The smaller satellites would be less costly to build and easier to replace compared with a single large satellite. If successful, Singapore will be among a handful of countries in the world to have such technology.

Start-ups making use of these technologies would be a space to watch. “In the next two to three years, the small satellite industry is poised to grow globally. Singapore will see some of the effects of the global industry with new start-ups emerging, and existing ones maturing,” says assistant professor Amal Chandran, associate director of the Satellite Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

“Already, existing [space tech] start-ups such as Gilmour Space Technologies, Transcelestial Technologies [and] Infinite Orbits have generated significant funding and are moving on to prototyping from the concept phase.”

Industry players are optimistic that Singapore may deploy its first commercial satellite next year. Gilmour, for instance, is expected to have its first test flight soon. Based in Australia and Singapore, the company bagged $19 million to launch its first commercial hybrid rocket in 2020. The company aims to build competitively priced rockets for small satellite companies.

Transcelestial Technologies says it is on track to launch three satellites by early 2020. The start-up, which received funding from Wavemaker Partners and Enterprise Singapore’s Seeds Capital, wants to use laser technology to transmit data via satellites, a solution that can replace costly subsea cables.

Another start-up in this space Equatorial Space Industries, which aims to build small rockets to launch nanosatellites to space — from Singapore. As there is no launchpad in Singapore, local companies that want to deploy satellites rely on big rockets that launch infrequently in other countries. Equatorial’s quest may help speed things up on local ground.

Given Singapore’s location near the equator, it also requires fewer satellites to provide round-the-clock coverage, compared with satellites in the north-to-south polar orbits. So, a constellation of satellites in the equatorial orbit is likely to be able to support the country’s various smart nation projects at reduced cost.

Meanwhile, in the remote outback of Alice Springs, Australia, eccentric visionary Lim Seng will attempt for the second time to send a Singaporean to near-space — a region 20km above sea level, where the habitable atmosphere ends and the air would be too thin for airplanes to fly. The first attempt to launch a Singaporean in a capsule strapped to a helium stratospheric balloon was thwarted by bad weather conditions.

Lim, founder of tech company IN.Genius, has spent millions on this project — all in the belief that the project will prove near-space technologies are worth building, though some observers say the use of technologies in that space is limited. “It is an untouched area, a virgin land between 20km to 100km altitude. The air is too thick for satellites to spin. [But] we can potentially build devices that hover, instead of spin, in near-space. That would allow for more cost-effective communication at closer distances to Earth,” Lim says.

Still, the obstacles ahead for these startups are plenty. “An important challenge is that space requires a significant amount of upfront investment,” says Lynette Tan, executive director of Singapore Space and Technology Association. It does not help that funding for space tech in Singa pore is distributed across multiple agencies, including the Economic Development Board and Enterprise Singapore.

At the same time, there is competition from larger countries such as China and India, which are also growing their space technologies aggressively. Would a dedicated national space agency help Singapore’s ambitions? NTU’s Chandran says a space agency can provide a clearer road map for funding and development in the sector. But it may also hinder progress by, for example, introducing new regulations. Singapore cannot afford to have too many restrictions if it wants to be successful in space.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 863, week of Dec 31) which is on sale now. Subscribe here

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