#SpaceWatchGL on the road: Satellite innovation – Silicon Valley 2021: Reporting from the Frontier


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by Laura Anne Edwards

Imagine if in all of human history no one had yet explored the oceans. Imagine if our proverbial first “toe in the water” was barely 70 years ago, but we had the technology today to explore and exploit it. This is exactly the situation for space – the entire planet is converging into space at the same time. Let it sink in. The burden of stewardship as we become starfaring only equals the scale of the new frontiers that are looming, and the tipping point is right now.

I came to this event to hear what the builders and buyers were saying. Although there has been a slight tendency to examine the interdependence between the commercial and the military (Military Satellite [Milsat,]), it was always in a larger economic and geopolitical context and the conference as a whole offered an excellent overview of what is leading in this sector.

This was more than the general optimism that can be found throughout the commercial space industry today. The energy at Silvano Payne’s satellite innovation event in Mountain View last week was palpable. Participants were clearly thrilled to see colleagues after nearly two long years of social distancing from Covid and the warmth of old friendships was evident everywhere you looked. I heard a number of people say that this had always been one of their favorite events, it soon became clear why. Launch, software, satellite, ground, antenna, DOD / Space Force and a wide range of service providers as well as major aerospace companies and commercial organizations were all well represented.

They have come here to get back to work and to identify common opportunities and challenges. Meeting rooms and booths seemed to get regular traffic and the lunch / break conversations were definitely lively. I don’t have the numbers on how many people watched the live broadcast, but I can attest that the 2.5 days of the event were very well followed with thoughtful questions from the audience.

The 10 most popular topics:

  1. Constellation
  2. Debris
  3. Orbital pathways
  4. Ground services
  5. Interoperability
  6. Contracts
  7. Hybrid ecosystem
  8. To throw
  9. Agile – Resilient – Secure
  • Other: Optics, AI, Antennas, Spectrum, Funding Gaps, Edge Computing
Panel at the Satellite Innovation 2021 event; Credits. Laura anne edwards

Constellation – everything revolves around the constellations right now. They are a game-changer, in terms of capabilities and in terms of pressure to create legal / economic policy to deal with and govern. New measures and a big step forward in ground services / safety and analysis will be needed to manage the scale and complexity of these fleets.

Debris – the risk of “conjunction events”, and the legal opportunities and challenges and possible regulatory and insurance frameworks to manage decommissioning / recovery of large debris were widely discussed. However, few solutions have been put forward to deal with the exponential proliferation of very small and so far untraceable fragments. A conference was devoted to this topic, the main takeaways being that the steps we can certainly take to reduce the risk must be taken many years in advance of impending incidents and the thorny question of analysis is complicated by the fact that it is a stochastic (defined as: “determined at random; having a random probability distribution or pattern that can be statistically analyzed but may not be predicted accurately.”) vs a deterministic problem. Note: Some news articles on this topic are linked below.

Orbital pathways – impending LEO / MEO issues a) traffic management and b) rights / responsibilities based on claims or licenses on said tracks (salvage and operating material.) Location, location, location!

Ground services – faces new challenges, including an adequate pipeline of trained operators, access to real estate and permission to build stations in desirable locations (such as Maui), as well as the longer lead times needed to develop hardware solutions, and the industry doesn’t see the same The “sexy” funding spotlight currently enjoyed by the satellite, launch and AI verticals.

Interoperability – the need for improved interoperability in order to both evolve and survive commercially, but also to jump systems as needed in emergency situations was agreed on panel after panel … as was the frank assessment that the incentives are just not here for the small to medium-sized businesses that understandably hate to forgo the competitive advantages of proprietary technology.

Contracts – the lingering laments over the complexity and barriers to entry and timelines of government contracts. Comtech highlighted the particular problem of successful companies established in the mid-size range as being both too large to benefit from any encouraging start-up funding (as with the Defense Innovation Unit [DIU,]) but too small to account for the long lead times that the largest aerospace companies are able to handle.

Hybrid ecosystem of Commercial + Defense – in-depth discussion of the challenges and the need to balance the need to evolve to be commercially successful with the challenges of making products that meet both the timeline and the unique security / compatibility / reliability needs of the defense.

To throw – as one speaker pointed out; all satellites today have one thing in common: they need a launch service. A wide range of vendors were presented, all focused on what they see as the rapidly growing on-demand market.

Agile / Resilient / Secure / Date – an in-depth discussion of some of the many conflicts within defense contracts. How to get secure multimodal information for the combatant (the same capabilities needed for things like massive natural disasters) that are fast, reliable and yet able to pivot in a crisis, while often working with products that are several generations behind. the commercial sector? Note: Defense is an area with huge opportunities for AI, but also an area that will continue to have humans in the mix, to calibrate and support.

Other: Optics, AI, Antennas, Spectrum, Edge Computing, Additive Manufacturing – admittedly that’s a bit of a cheat, grouping these great topics into # 10. All of them were mentioned frequently throughout the event, and there were terrific short summaries on emerging technologies. rich in information on several of them. One comment from AI really stood out to me and it was the observation that AI is currently being written for humans to understand, whereas soon, in order to handle complexity, it will be written in native formats so that AI understands – what are the consequences of this?

In short, the mood was really an encouraging mix of innovation and long-term value creation, with a shared vision and a sense of responsibility for what is to come.

Articles referenced in Mark Dankberg of Viasat’s Keynote on Space Debris:

A McKinsey Reportt on space debris

Here are articles on space debris and Kessler syndrome

Laura Anne Edwards; Photo courtesy of her

LAURA-ANNE EDWARDSInnovation catalyst, speaker specializing in complex systems and spatial technological innovation. Laura was named one of the Top 50 Space Tech Leaders in 2021. Laura is a NASA Datanaut, Oxford Space Initiative Member, TED Resident, Board Member / Crowdfunding and a resident of UC Irvine, the Living Systems Collaboratory and the Buckminster Fuller Design Science Studio. Laura served on the US Department of State’s Technology and Innovation / Public-Private Partnerships Advisory Board and was named a 2019 Woman to Watch in Innovation. Laura consults and speaks on sustainable innovation, systems thinking, diversity of thinking, the potential for true AI-human collaborations, and humans thrive in space. Advisor: CogniDNA, Space Nation

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