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The tiny giants of the Australian space ecosystem

From computer sciences to engineering and from biology to advanced manufacturing, Australia has always fostered excellence in applying scientific research.

With the announcement of the new Australian Space Agency, the interest in space has reawakened and it has led many Australians to ask themselves: “what can Australia do in space?” The answer: EVERYTHING! And much of it is due to our world-leading capability in the fabrication of nanosatellites.

Like phones and computers, satellites are also getting smaller and better. Smaller satellites are called nanosatellites. These satellites are about the size of a human hand, weigh between 1 and 10 kg and can do almost everything a conventional satellite does – at a fraction of the cost.

Nanosatellites or microsatellites were initially developed for research purposes, however, the cost-efficient aspect of this technology is powering several successful start-ups in Australia and starting what some scientists and industry experts are calling a “nanosat boom”.

Demand for real-time intelligence to support the Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the way the world operates as we move towards data-driven technologies. Current terrestrial wireless communication technologies such as 3G, 4G, WiFi and WiMax work well over medium range distances, but none of them can cover a whole country or continent and the networks are getting congested with the multiplication of IoT devices. One of the solutions to overcome these problems is investment in space infrastructure, as it can help deliver additional data communication, even to rural areas.

A space-based IoT communication system requires an adaptable infrastructure that will suit various applications. The infrastructure shown below shows a constellation of nanosatellites communicating between each other via Inter Satellite linkURL (ISL). This allows IoT data to be passed through each satellite, facilitating storage and communication with the ground stations, which then communicate data directly to the cloud or other intended terminals.

What’s in the Australian sky (or just over the horizon) for this technology?

Applications for nanosatellites are diversifying. From earth observation to reconnaissance missions, start-ups are leveraging data from nanosatellites to improve military surveillance, predict the weather, track assets and even monitor endangered species. We can markedly improve efficiency in industries such as telecommunications, agriculture, mining, defence and logistics thanks to this technology.

The nano/microsatellite market is growing tremendously in Australia. After the announcement of the Australian Space Agency, many Australian commercial companies and start-ups have publically revealed their intentions regarding future launches of nanosatellites. South Australian start-up, Fleet, have recently opened its first ground station centre that will track and receive data from nanosatellites set to launch late this year.

Australian companies are looking to expand into this emerging market. Here’s a look at four well-established Australian industries poised to benefit from space-based technologies.

Telecom companies are under a lot of pressure to innovate with data and connectivity services, while cutting costs. The cost-effective nature of nanosatellites makes them an ideal choice to facilitate communications and transfer of data. City dwellers sometimes take communication infrastructure for granted, but there are people in remote areas who can’t make phone calls, or can’t look at information on the internet. Nanosatellite constellations would be able to provide seamless communication services to people living in rural areas. The cost of a constellation is expected to cost about $160 million, which is only two-thirds of the cost of a single regular telecommunication satellite.

Space technology has both civil and military applications. Nanosatellite constellations can provide ideal situational awareness and cover a number needs – collecting very short data bursts from remote areas to detect and monitor sea and meteorological conditions and remote sensing and surveillance.

Australia already has leading technology in remote area mining. The use of nanosatellite technology to support remote area communications and automated operations will open a broad range of new resource opportunities for one of our nation’s most important industries.

As previously mentioned nanosatellites can communicate data to cloud-based platforms. This data can provide useful information to identify changes in crops and soil, helping farmers make smarter decisions, optimize yield, increase profitability and enhance sustainable farm practices (decrease fertiliser and water used).

Over the next decade, Australian ingenuity in nanosatellite technology will produce a double dividend. The nanosat boom will reward us with new jobs and great export potential. But our existing major industries will also be able to improve their productivity using nanosatellite technology. An economic multiplier that is out of this world!