Exclusive: Why space is the biggest govtech sector this year

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Graham Turnock, Chief Executive, UK Space Agency.

Images: European Space Agency

“You, me, everyone - we are made of star stuff.” So says eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, because we are more deeply connected to far-away supernovas and nebulas than we think.

This connection could be the key to solving problems on Earth. Countries are increasingly looking upwards: for instance, the UK Space Agency is using its satellites to help various countries clamp down on illegal activity, improve disaster response, and stem the spread of diseases.

“The government was looking to deploy international aid in more creative and innovative ways than perhaps have been in the past,” Chief Executive Graham Turnock tells GovInsider in an exclusive interview. “At the Space Agency, this is our creative contribution to that debate.”

Solutions from space


Turnock’s agency runs the International Partnership Programme (IPP), which is funding ten new projects this year to the tune of £38 million (US$ 52.9 million). The programme brings together countries with companies that use satellite imagery or earth observation data. The space agency works as a conduit, liaising with local governments and supporting project teams in achieving milestones.

Within this region, there are projects in Indonesia and Malaysia, mapping dry peat conditions and allowing local authorities to mitigate the risk of forest fires. “You can do that even below forest canopies,” Turnock explains.

Meanwhile, there are projects predicting dengue outbreaks in Vietnam - “it also might be quite useful for Zika virus as well” - and tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Philippines. Globally, there are projects to track illegal gold mining in Colombia; help herders in Mongolia to build resilience against extreme weather; and monitor dam failures in Peru.

The programme also brings emerging technology in new and unconventional ways to countries in need. In South America, one project is using AI to identify clearings that are typically associated with illegal coal mining. “The satellite data provides images of the forest canopy and the algorithm identifies clearings that are likely to be associated with illegal coal mines - a very good example of machine learning,” Turnock says.

He describes these partnerships as “win-win-win” all around. “It’s a win in terms of maximising the effectiveness of the UK’s aid budget; it’s a win for the countries that we’re working in; it’s a win for the companies that are developing these innovative solutions.”

Bringing impact

Some of IPP’s projects have already had immediate impact in global communities. In Tanzania, a partnership is working on mapping flooding and other natural disasters, and this capability has been “critical” to enable on-the-ground support to be directed most effectively to disaster victims, according to Turnock. “Space is a wonderful resource and we’ve got to look after it, but it can deliver so many benefits if we use it wisely,” he points out.
“Space is a wonderful resource and we’ve got to look after it.”
These projects also demonstrate how to use space to learn more about remote locations, reduce crime, or save lives. “Once you put a satellite up into orbit, it just stays there and does all this work for you, using solar power, for nothing,” Turnock remarks. “Isn’t that a wonderful thing?”

Sustainability is a big factor to consider, he continues, and partnerships should continue past their “funded lifetime”, becoming economically self-sustaining.

Mars or bust

More and more, the cost of entering the space sector is going down, thanks to “the democratisation of space”. In the UK, the space industry employs over 38,000 people and is growing at an average of 8% for the last five years, Turnock says. The country hopes to capture 10% of global market share by 2030. Already, the sector’s annual turnover was £13.7 billion (US$19.4 billion) in 2014-15, which is equivalent to 6.5% of the global space economy.

Satellite launches are a big priority for the UK, but just as important are its collaborations with the European Space Agency. In 2020 - after Brexit - a rover will be launched to search for signs of life on Mars, according to Turnock.

He predicts that space will “support advanced economies”, and he sees huge opportunities in agriculture - “optimum management in terms of watering, management, pests, harvesting; digital agriculture is really coming on very rapidly”. Transportation is another area poised for disruption - satnav is already widely used, but in the future, effective management of railways and roads is one option, according to Turnock.

Looking ahead, the UK Space Agency has an ambitious vision: to deliver “the new space era”. Where the old space era saw countries race to reach the moon first, “new space is really about using data from space to make life better on Earth”, Turnock explains. Space tech could transform medicine, healthcare, shipping, forestry management, and many more areas besides, he says.
“New space is really about using data from space to make life better on Earth.”
Turnock himself was a particle physicist by training, but the allure of space and a childhood spent in astronomy clubs propelled him to where he is now. “For me, this is a dream job,” says Turnock, who once attended lectures by the late Stephen Hawking while at Cambridge University.

Gazing up at the sky at night, one can’t help but wonder at the vastness of the universe. But look more closely at the stars, because among those pinpricks of light are the satellites that help effect change on planet Earth.