Spire Global brand director Nick Allain gives BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe an insight into why Scotland benefits from being connected to the worldwide space industry.
Few parts of the economy can claim to have such a global influence as the space industry. Sending satellites into orbit and then using the data they collect to solve everyday problems back on Earth touches the lives of people living throughout the world.
Scotland is developing a growing reputation within the space industry, from the manufacturing firms that build nanosatellites through to the service companies that harvest and analyse the resulting data. But how does Scotland benefit from being plugged into such an international industry?
“When a company establishes an office in a new country, it brings with it its connections and any future connections that it makes,” explains Nick Allain, brand director at Spire Global, a San Francisco-based satellite-powered data company that opened a major base in Glasgow in 2015. “Spire provides access to a new form of real-time global data that will be critical to ships, weather forecasting, and plane tracking for the next decade or more.
“It simply won’t be possible to make good decisions in those industries without it. That data, coming from satellites built here in Glasgow, connects Scotland to every vessel, every weather report, and every flight.”
Spire’s 40 members of staff in Glasgow are involved in many stages of the company’s operations. Its engineers assemble the nanosatellites that it uses and then puts them through their paces with a barrage of tests before they’re launched into orbit.
“It’s not just jobs we bring – although that’s certainly part of it,” says Allain. “The talent available in Glasgow has been excellent. People work hard here.”
Satellite controllers are also based in the city, along with business development staff. The company has been so impressed with the quality of the work produced by its Scottish team that it recently invested in larger office space and a testing lab in the city, utilising Skypark, a business centre in Glasgow’s hip Finnieston district.
The company was attracted to Scotland after working in partnership with Clyde Space, which makes cubesats. Spire received a £1.5m grant from Scottish Development International, economic agency Scottish Enterprise’s overseas arm, to help it set up its base in Glasgow. “Co-locating with Clyde Space has undoubtedly been great for both companies,” admits Allain. “We have both grown by leaps and bounds in the past year.
“From the moment Spire first started building its products, it was clear that we would need a global presence. We had vendors across Europe and customers cropped up in nearly every time zone.
“The UK time zone is helpful in overlapping with our Singapore office and United States offices. It helps us as a company to ‘work globally’.
“Many members of our staff have calls, meetings, or messages in the morning with Singapore and with the US teams in the afternoon. It can be very exciting to come in in the morning to find that the work didn’t stop when you left.
“It really echoes the customers that operate globally as well. That kind of understanding is a huge competitive advantage. Most of Spire’s customers are outside of the UK, making us as global as any large media firm or bank.”
The satellites designed and built by the team in Glasgow are used to gather weather data, giving computer models many times more information than they’ve had before. By the end of this year that figure could rise to as much as 100 times as much information. Weather forecasting is big business. Experts have calculated that the weather has US$125bn (£100bn) impact on manufacturing and that companies lose around $2.8tn each year due to bad forecasts. A series of storms and floods last winter cost the UK economy £1.3bn, according to figures from the Association of British Insurers (ABI), while insurer Allianz estimates that routine variations in the weather cost the European Union’s economy about a400bn (£330bn) a year.
Tackling the problems associated with weather forecasting isn’t the only issue on Spire’s radar. The company – which was founded in 2012 by chief executive Peter Platzer, payload architect Jeroen Cappaert and technical architect Joel Spark, who met at the International Space University in France – is also involved in tracking ships and aircrafts.
Instead of ‘looking’ at the Earth using visible light, the firm uses radio frequency signals to “listen” to the planet. It specialises in studying the three-quarters of the world that are covered by oceans, deserts and other inhospitable places. Usually, ships can only be tracked within 50 miles of port, but Spire can follow them out into the ocean, using its nanosatellites orbiting 270 miles above the Earth’s surface. The company has the largest ship-tracking network of nanosatellites in orbit.
Following the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in 2014, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is ordering most aircraft traveling over oceans to report their latitude, longitude and altitude every 15 minutes, a task that will be impossible without satellites.
Building on the success of ‘Sense’, its ship-tracking product, Spire is preparing to launch AirSafe, its product for tracking aircraft. The first 25 aircraft tracking equipped satellites will be sent into orbit this year, with the service due to go into operation next year.
The technology behind the system is already mandatory in many countries and will be adopted in the US in 2020. Making tracking systems compulsory is designed to speed up rescue operations if a plane crashes. When Air France flight 447 went missing in 2009, the search area covered more than 600,000 square miles. Using 15-minute satellite tracking, the search grid could have been slashed to just 65,000 square miles.
“Spire is interested in tackling those global problems – the kind of things that you can’t solve with a phone call or an email,” says Allain. “They aren’t solved already because they’re hard, but we love hard problems like that because they have a global impact. They take hard engineering, software, and the right business leaders.”