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Innovation In County Durham

Matching what's needed with what's possible.
Meet the North businesses helping the race for space

Meet the North businesses helping the race for space

The global space industry is expected to grow to $1.1 trillion by 2040. Ahead of a conference in Durham dedicated to the potential the burgeoning sector offers North East businesses, The Northern Echo looks at some of the pioneering companies making significant advances in the industry.

GIGANTIC leaps forward in space travel; continual threats to the modern world and an insatiable desire for data and information have led many to look beyond the edges of our planet for answers.

Some of the richest names in the world, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and business magnate Sir Richard Branson, are funding future space missions, while thought leaders such as Elon Musk have gone so far as to say we must leave Earth in order for our species to survive.

However, for many innovative companies operating in the multi-billion-pound global space industry, the focus is less on what lies beyond and more on emerging technologies operating in space and capturing a whole myriad of information and data, that can have a real impact on Earth.

The North East is home to a growing number of businesses emerging and thriving in the industry, with the UK Space Agency recently announcing a second wave of funding into the space incubation programme delivered by Business Durham, the economic development organisation for County Durham, which is designed to support growth and success in the sector. 

One such company making great strides is Saltburn-by-the-Sea-based Scoutek Ltd, which has designed and developed a tiny satellite called a ThumbSat. The femtosatellite is no larger than a human thumb – hence its name – yet features a high-definition camera, a variety of lenses than can act as both microscopes and telescopes, and a high-tech onboard computer.

The brains behind the ThumbSat vision is experienced space engineer Shaun Whitehead, from Darlington, who as a boy dreamt of being an astronaut, and as a creative ten-year-old designed his first rocket, eagerly sending his plans to ICI and Castrol in the hope of sponsorship. Shaun worked for a number of years at Leicester University’s Space Research Centre, before taking a role as technical director with Astro Pioneer Ltd, then moving to Magna Parva Ltd, where he was instrumental in converting the small motorsport business into a successful player in the space industry.

His focus now is on ThumbSats, which are currently being manufactured and tested in the US and Mexico and are expected to fly on a Mexican Space Agency mission soon.

Closer to home, Scoutek is also working with Teesside University to develop a rapid, low-cost launch rocket – a StratoBooster, which ascends on a meteorological balloon - to send ThumbSats into space from the region by this summer. If successful, the “tu2space” project will be the first civilian space mission to launch from UK soil.

Shaun said he was proud to be working on such a significant project in the region. “It will be wonderful to show what we are capable of here.  We’re ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ like Captain Cook and George Stephenson and we want to do them proud,” he says.

Another company working in the satellites industry is Viper RF, which designs and supplies high frequency semiconductor chips. The firm, based on the Aycliffe Industrial Estate, has won three contracts with the European Space Agency to develop next generation high power radio frequency (RF) amplifiers and RF front-ends for future satellites.  

 

Viper has already started supplying custom-designed chips into a mega-constellation of satellites developed to provide ‘internet-on-the-move’, an area it believes it can grow business significantly, bringing with it a wave of jobs.

Meanwhile newly-formed Northern Space and Security Limited (NorSS), based in Longhoughton, Northumberland is also hoping to make an impact in the space market and create jobs.

Its director, Ralph ‘Dinz’ Dinsley, is a recently retired RAF officer with more than 32 years military service as an aerospace battle manager, including an unprecedented 16 years specialist space surveillance experience.

He set up NorSS to deliver specialist support to space flight operations and space surveillance, providing expert advice on technical, operational and policy matters regarding sustainable support from space. Ralph expects NorSS to expand its workforce as it looks to work on projects with the European and UK Space Agencies, as well in areas of defence and security, in the “niche but expanding” area of the market. 

“The growing recognition of the need for space traffic management, and lack of experience in the UK, means NorSS Ltd will be able to exploit an emerging concept,” he says.

NorSS, together with Scoutek and Viper RF, recently won coveted places on the region’s space incubation programme, delivered by Business Durham, the economic development organisation for County Durham, in partnership with the UK Space Agency. The programme supports companies working in the industry with access to expertise and support in areas such as marketing, law, financial management, business growth and IP protection.

It builds on the significant impact the North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence, one of only five in the country, has already made. The centre, based at the North East Technology Park (NETPark), in Sedgefield, works with companies to exploit the use of satellite data, technology and applications to gain a competitive edge in the global market.

One such company that has expanded its knowledge and expertise into the space satellite industry is aXenic, which has a well-seasoned background in telecommunications components. The NETPark-based firm has developed specialised optical modulators, which put a high-frequency electrical signal onto fibre for demanding, high-capacity transmission systems. These modulators improve the communication links both between satellites and from satellites to the ground.

Chief executive Stephen Clements says: “These devices are part of developments to enable a new generation of telecommunication satellites with capabilities for providing internet connections to areas unable to access normal cable delivered services and may compete directly with fibre-fed services in the future.”

Lexicon, specialists in VR and AR technology and also with an office on NETPark, is taking its first steps in the industry with its space-related project SAINTS – a ‘Satellite Automated Intelligent Nautical Tracking System’ that can track and monitor global shipping, and alert military to potential risks in war zones. Lexicon expects to work on three further space projects going forward.

Austen Atkinson, executive producer at Lexicon, says: “Lexicon and its partners can provide innovative solutions that could help counter emergent threats to our society and improve the quality of life across the globe – in commerce, education, health and communication, through the innovative exploitation of space technologies.

“There’s big data already being generated but it is under exploited and yet it could help make sense of the global situation. Google’s mission is to organise data and make it useful, we will take useful data and improve lives and businesses.”

Other names working in the region’s satellites industry include software companies Ryelore AI and Superfly Guys, both of which benefitted from the space incubation programme support last year.

Superfly Guys, based in Durham, provides qualified drone pilots, thermographers and data analysts to provide services tailored to architects, surveyors, engineers and others in the construction sector and facilities management. Using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and the latest technologies, the company carries out stockpile calculations, thermal/optical roof surveys, Photovoltaic inspections, thermal indexing, aerial inspection and accurate orthomosaic surveys.

Managing director Al Yong says the incubation programme provided “crucial help” to grow and develop the business.

“Being able to access high quality business support has directly helped us increase our revenues and improve our overall strategy,” he says. “We’re in a prime position to guide the built environment into a new era of UAV technology, strongly supported by the space sector. We're very grateful to the UK Space Agency for their continued support.”

 

The North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence is holding its annual conference at Ramside Hall, Durham, on March 22.  Focus this year will be on business opportunities for data-led satellite application in the space industry, immersive technology, 5G and Artificial Intelligence. For more information visit www.nesatappsconference.com

The Northern Echo