In a day dominated by pomp and pageantry, there was a surprising amount for techies to get excited about in the Queen’s Speech yesterday, with a whole bill dedicated to space travel, drones and self-driving cars.
Far from being only relevant to sci-fi fans, however, the UK’s space sector is serious business. It is worth at least £12bn and continues to grow at an impressive pace. Tim Peake’s sojourn on the International Space Station has captured the public’s imagination, but we do not want access to space to be limited to governments using taxpayers’ cash. In order for the private sector to share in low-cost access to space, we need an enabling regulatory framework, and most importantly, we need a spaceport. Thankfully, yesterday’s Speech confirmed government commitment to both of these.
Since the Institute of Directors first called for a spaceport four years ago, the landscape has shifted. The disappointment has to be that suborbital vehicle manufacturers like Virgin Galactic, Xcor Aerospace and Swiss Space Systems are taking longer than anticipated to develop a working spaceship. It has become increasingly unlikely that they will launch regular low cost manned spaceflight before the beginning of the next decade. Virgin Galactic is in fact taking a much greater interest in launching satellites into space from a modified Boeing 747, helping to finally deliver broadband everywhere on Earth.
The unexpected development has been in reusable vertical launch rockets, with this scene now dominated by competing billionaires – Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Bezos’s company – Blue Origin – has had three reusable rocket landings after reaching 350,000 feet and carried its first research cargo. It won’t be long before it is carrying people too. Meanwhile, Musk’s SpaceX has gone even further – reaching orbit, signing big contracts with Nasa, and landing back on a drone barge at sea. Having rockets you can reuse is important to making space access economical because each costs $60m-plus.
The significance for the UK is that vertical rockets can launch from very different locations to horizontal take-off and landing vehicles, which need runways of at least 9,000 feet. For this reason, the UK will probably need at least two spaceports in the years to come. Of the government’s shortlisted locations, Scotland might be the home for vertical launch rocket points, with horizontal suborbital craft using runways in Newquay and/or Llanbedr in Wales.
Across the UK, sometimes in surprising places, companies in the space sector are developing niche specialisms, particularly when it comes to satellites. Surrey Satellite Technology has led the way for some time in small satellites. Watch out, though, for Oxford Space Systems and its much smaller cubesats. It’s one of a cluster of new space companies based in Harwell, Oxfordshire that will benefit from low-cost national access to space.
Back on land, the incremental progress on self-driving cars is starting to accelerate. The promise of autonomous vehicles is huge – a dramatic lowering in accidents to almost zero, a huge reduction in traffic, air pollution and, ultimately, perhaps even providing serious competition to public transport networks. By the time HS2 is built and working in 2026, it is highly likely that the UK will have at least a million driverless vehicles on the road and commuting from the suburbs will become more desirable.
The greatest disappointment yesterday, though, has to be that government has dropped the ball on broadband. Drones, self-driving cars and a nascent space sector will all require high-bandwidth connections to capture and crunch large amounts of data. A Universal Service Obligation of 10 megabits per second by 2020 is simply inadequate, when several US cities are already rolling out speeds of 10 gigabits per second. Getting broadband right is a prerequisite for a high tech economy, so we urge the government to raise the level of its ambition.