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Sky’s the limit as Irish space tech companies break new ground

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A person wears virtual reality goggles at the European Space Agency (ESA) stand in the Web Summit, Europe's largest technology conference, in Lisbon, Portugal, November 2, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

A person wears virtual reality goggles at the European Space Agency (ESA) stand in the Web Summit, Europe's largest technology conference, in Lisbon, Portugal, November 2, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

A person wears virtual reality goggles at the European Space Agency (ESA) stand in the Web Summit, Europe's largest technology conference, in Lisbon, Portugal, November 2, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

While data generated by satellites was once the preserve of governments and huge corporations, it’s increasingly linked to everyday life. This shift opens up significant potential opportunities for innovative Irish companies to harness this data to build their businesses.

Not only that, but providing components and services to the space tech sector itself is also proving to be lucrative for Irish businesses.

In fact, this sector has grown by more than 50pc in Ireland in the past five years.

In 2021, a record 94 Irish companies engaged with the European Space Agency (ESA), according to its recently released annual report.

ESA develops launchers, spacecraft and ground facilities, along with satellites for Earth observation, navigation, telecommunications and astronomy.

In total, ESA signed contracts with 36 Irish companies last year, 14 of which secured first-time contracts.

The contracts were worth €15.8m in total and were boosted by €4.8m in industry co-funding.

Ten Irish companies visited the European Space Agency’s Centre for Earth Observation (ESRIN) in Frascati, close to Rome, last October.

Earth observation satellites monitor climate change and security issues, while also providing information for emergency response, navigation and land mapping.

This visit was hosted during a trade mission in order to maximise the business opportunities and raise awareness of the Earth Observation programme.

It also proved an excellent opportunity for the Irish companies to visit ASI (the Italian space agency) and to connect with Italian peers in the sector.

Italy is the fourth-largest market for space tech in Europe (seventh in the world), and it’s also one of the few in the world to cover the entire supply chain.

About 200 Italian companies are active in the sector, 80pc of which are SMEs, along with some large players such as Avio, Thales Alenia Spazio and Telespazio.

In total, they generate more than €2bn in annual turnover.

Dublin company Davra Networks, one of the Irish companies that took part in the trade mission, has secured a first-of-its-kind ESA contract.

It aims to show how it can integrate earth observation data from the Sentinel 1 and 2 satellites with industrial Internet of Things data and other information sources to monitor mine tailings (waste materials) for subsidence, a critically important safety issue.

Separately, Cork-based Treemetrics has been awarded a two-year ESA contract to use satellite imaging, data analytics and its advanced forest measurement technology to provide more accurate forest carbon credit estimates.

While this is a rapidly developing sector here, Irish companies are not yet large enough to be the main contractor in space tech projects.

But they excel at collaborating with larger players and introducing innovative new products and services to the market.

For example, Irish company Réaltra Space Systems Engineering designed and made the high-definition video system that is mounted on the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, the first time such a video system has been on a European launcher.

Meanwhile, two Irish companies, Mindseed and Ocean Energy, are assessing how to use satellite services in order to tackle operational challenges in the renewable marine energy industry.

While there are numerous private satellites, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellites, the data they provide is expensive.

By contrast, that gathered by European Sentinel satellites is open and free to everyone. And, effectively, any citizen can use it.

However, it is typically those companies with the expert knowledge to understand and use these rich data sets, and overlay them with other information such as on-the-ground imagery, that currently make use of them.

Along with providing products and services directly related to satellites, Irish firms can also find opportunity in space tech around artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics and edge computing.

Today’s satellites produce petabytes of data — each petabyte is a million gigabytes — meaning AI is needed to sort through the huge volumes and help make sense of them.

For example, an AI tool can assess satellite images and discard those that are cloudy and therefore of no practical use.

Unsurprisingly, the sales cycle is long in the sector and it can be a challenging market to enter.

However, Irish companies clearly have the technical capability needed and are increasingly making their mark in space tech.

Enterprise Ireland client companies that are interested in tendering for ESA contracts or otherwise engaging in the space tech sector can consult our ESA representatives and our in-market teams for further information.

Niall Bolger, ESA programmes manager, and Sara Bonomi, market adviser, Italy, Enterprise Ireland.


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