Steve Lee, founder of Astrosat
Chief executive Steve Lee founded Astrosat as an ‘ideas factory’ to take data from space and use it to solve problems back on Earth, writes Karen Peattie.
It’s still dark and Steve Lee, en route to Oxford from Musselburgh, is languishing on the M6 motorway, hoping things start moving soon so he can fill up at the next service station. “I wish I could find a solution in space to keep the traffic moving,” he laughs. “Seriously, though, we left at 1.30am and there’s a real danger we’re going to run out of petrol.”
Lee, chief executive at Astrosat, is heading south of the Border for a meeting. His travelling companion is the East Lothian firm’s chief technical officer, Alan McLarney, so the conversation is in no danger of drying up – unlike the fuel. Asked why the pair are on the road rather than in the air, he deduces that – given the time it would take to get to Edinburgh, wait for the flight, hope it’s on time, fly to Heathrow or Birmingham then hire a car – “it’s much easier this way and in theory shouldn’t take any longer”.
Astrosat – or Stevenson Astrosat (Astro Science and Technology) to give the company its Sunday name – is a bit of an upstart in the space technology world, and has turned the industry on its head in much the same way that BrewDog has with beer. To do that, however, requires a considerable amount of travelling – “one of the downsides” – and it involves Lee spending long periods of time away from his wife and son.
Established almost five-and-a-half years ago, Astrosat is essentially an ‘ideas factory’ that specialises in taking data gathered by satellites and creating something that can be used commercially across a broad spectrum of industries. “We’re driven by the belief that every problem has a space solution,” says Lee, an astrophysics graduate from the University of Edinburgh. “We are problem solvers and go out into the world to find a way to use space technology to solve a particular problem.”
Lee makes it sound simple. “Space is the nuts and bolts of our toolkit,” he goes on. “Space is a service like software is a service. We merge satellite and ground-based data to provide valuable information to a wide range of sectors. It all starts with ideas.”
His back story is a well-trodden one and his telling of it colourful, from playing gigs in the local pub to help him through university and fund a technology start-up back in 2003. “When I left university, there was nothing happening in the space industry and the European Space Agency (ESA) wasn’t recruiting,” says Lee. “I’d already decided that academia wasn’t for me and I was thinking about joining the RAF and becoming a helicopter pilot.”
Instead, Lee went to Boston where he set up a geo-spatial mapping company. After selling his part of the business he came back to the UK but still found a “desert of a space industry”. Falling back on his music – he’s an accomplished guitarist and fan of country and western – he played gigs again.
“Then I met my wife and life started to get serious,” he says. “What I really wanted to do was start using my physics and to do that I had to launch my own company. Round about that time, the space industry was waking up and looking for new thinkers and innovative start-ups to work with. ESA opened up access to satellites so with my credit cards and gigging I set up Astrosat to develop commercial astronautics, space technology and Earth observation products.
“My wife became pregnant around the same time so there was a lot going on and I won’t say it wasn’t stressful,” he recalls. “She told me to get a move on and get the company started before my son was born and we did that with a couple of months to spare. We managed to buy some data and get things up and running – and even make some money. There was no looking back.”
That data – thermal information that morphed into ThermCERT, a carbon emission reduction spin-out – was a pivotal point for Astrosat, sending out the message loud and clear that this small Musselburgh-based entity was capable of making a major contribution to the space industry. ThermCERT uses space-based technology to plan and track investment in heating systems, a technology described as “a thermal and hyperspectral Google Street View”.
ThermCERT went on to win ESA recognition in the form of the prestigious Copernicus Award. It’s been developed and demonstrated through ESA contracts and is on the verge of some very exciting commercial success. Astrosat has continued on its stellar prize-winning trajectory with other major ESA Masters Awards for its products WaveCERT, WinterVision and RoadTask, along with the 2015 Copernicus Masters Smart Cities and Intelligent Transport Challenge, sponsored by the Satellite Applications Catapult, for its eXude urban flood monitoring application.
The eXude system provides an advanced flood-monitoring tool that makes use of the latest in synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and radar altimetry data-processing techniques for flood identification and mapping, including in urban areas. Coupled with the ability to receive additional data sets, the system provides information on drainage capabilities and hazard assessment, or infrastructure failures within flood management infrastructures, both during events and in post-event analysis.
Last year and for the foreseeable future, the company has stopped competing for awards and is instead sponsoring the prestigious Copernicus Masters annual competition, setting an end-to-end challenge for contestants. After much deliberation, the eventual winner was the National Space Centre in Ireland, which came up with a proposed sensor suite designed to monitor seaweed growth, entitled Seaweed Crop Assurance, Monitoring, Prospecting, & Ecological Resource (SCAMPER) management.
In 2015, the UK Space Agency awarded Astrosat one of seven contracts to work with international partners to develop satellite technology in emerging economies. The Recovery and Protection in Disaster (RAPID) involves working with partners including the Vietnam Ministry of Science & Technology. The system provides a vital link between critical satellite imaging information and ‘in the field’ emergency responders making crucial decisions during and in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Huge amounts of data are produced by satellites that can be used to mitigate the impacts of climate change and natural disasters – not only the direct threats to the general public’s immediate safety but also the damaging effects on a nation’s economy in the aftermath.
RAPID is designed to get this information to where it is needed and to who needs it, allowing the right decisions to be made in order to protect lives and get the local economy working as soon as possible after an event. Along with the other six projects, it was funded through the UK Space Agency’s International Partnerships Space Programme (IPSP), and demonstrated how UK satellite or space technology can provide societal and economic benefits to countries that do not currently have such capabilities.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Lee’s boyish enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the slightest. New contracts mean turnover this year will be between £4 million and £5m and the 25-strong workforce – or “crew” as Lee likes to call his team – will rise by another eight in the coming months and “probably reach around 50” by 2018.
In December 2016, Astrosat was one of the youngest and ‘lesser known’ companies to win three contracts as part of the UK Space Agency’s £150m International Partnership Programme (IPP), which followed on from the IPSP pilot scheme. The programme uses people’s space knowledge and expertise to provide a sustainable, economic or societal benefit to undeveloped nations and developing economies – in other words, to address real-world problems.
One of the contracts, worth £2.5m, follows on from the IPSP work, further developing RAPID in Vietnam. Under the two-and-a-half-year project, Astrosat is acting as the prime contractor and is working with Telespazio Vega, Vietnam’s Ministry of Science & Technology, and the Vietnamese Space Committee to support typhoon landfall prediction, assessment of critical infrastructure during floods, flood extend mapping, and humanitarian and disaster response situational awareness. Another contract, FMAP, is helping to fight the illegal removal of timber from fragile rainforests in Guatemala.
The £6m deal – a major coup for Astrosat, which again is acting as the prime contractor – involves the firm developing a ground-breaking “CCTV in the sky” system in partnership with UK and US-based company Earth Observation to monitor forests and detect illegal activity.
Other partners in the three-year FMAP project are Deimos and Telespazio Vega, along with several organisations in Guatemala, including the Guatemalan National Forestry Institute and ARCAS, a not-for-profit non-governmental organisation formed in 1989 by a group of Guatemalan citizens who became concerned as they saw their precious natural heritage – especially their wildlife – rapidly disappearing before their eyes.
The third contract is for the £11.4m EASOS project in Malaysia. Astrosat is part of a wider consortium, with its share of the project worth around £1m.
There’s no doubt that Scotland’s space industry is booming. Research issued by London Economics on behalf of Scottish Enterprise has shown that Scotland has the potential to grow its role in space from a fledgling industry to a £4 billion industry by 2030, as part of the wider UK aim of quadrupling its revenues to £40bn over the same period.
Lee highlights seed funding support for Astrosat in its early days from Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International and says the firm would not have been ready for big support from the UK Space Agency and ESA without it.
“You can’t do it all on your own,” he points out. “Much of what we do involves working with other partners – that’s what makes things happen, when you all throw your ideas into the mix. The space industry is like a big family and we’re very much part of that family.”
Astrosat itself is also a ‘family’ with Lee and Alan McLarney long-time friends, colleagues and collaborators. McLarney specialises in astronautics and aeronautics and has an “uncanny skill for developing new concepts and products”. He leads the technical team as well as providing input into the strategic thinking and technical direction of the company.
“We’ve got really wide experience in the crew, which is important because everyone has ideas and that’s what we’re about,” says Lee. “We’ve got engineers, software developers, a geoscientist, oceanographer, our Earth observation and hydrodynamics specialist – we’ve also brought in ex-armed forces personnel. Having many different people from different backgrounds is really important in any business.”
With its focus on Earth observation, satellite communications and technology transfer, the company certainly needs a wide range of skills and Lee is keen to inspire the next generation of space leaders. Like others in the industry, he alludes to the “Tim Peake effect” and shares the view of others that the high-profile astronaut’s time on the International Space Station will inspire young people.
Astrosat supported last year’s Careers Hive, the new project by Edinburgh International Science Festival (EISF) aimed at encouraging pupils in their first three years of secondary school to take science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Lee spoke to 3,000 pupils about the opportunities available in ‘new space’ for those pursuing careers in STEM, focusing on the challenges of space faced by scientists and engineers in a booming industry.
“It’s getting the message across that space isn’t just about walking on the Moon and finding life on Mars,” he points out. “Space can have an impact on us every day in areas that seem quite ordinary, from switching on the TV to making a phone call. Our work can benefit local authorities, emergency services, environmental agencies, power stations and infrastructures operators.
“Earth observation can be a highly useful tool for smart decision-making,” he continues. “When you know what is happening, even in the most remote locations, decisions that save a lot money can be made. With satellite communications you can find solutions to all sorts of problems on Earth and technology transfer helps identify technologies that can be used commercially for everyone’s benefit, particularly when it comes to helping undeveloped nations and developing economies.
“Space is amazing,” he goes on. “It really isn’t rocket science – we’re solving problems by finding solutions in space for bolstering the long-term infrastructure of our energy, transport and communications systems, tracking climate change. I’m only just scratching the surface.
“We love science and it’s really satisfying to be able to do what we love and be at the forefront of the space industry – and still be based in Scotland.”