Australian businesses eye final frontier as calls for space agency grow


The transport, mining and agriculture sectors look set to be transformed by booming growth in nanosatellite technology at home.

When Italian-born Flavia Tata Nardini moved to Adelaide for love, she didn’t want to leave her other great love behind: space.

The former propulsion engineer at the European Space Agency found an industry job difficult to find in Australia, so she turned to entrepreneurship.

She co-founded the start-up company Fleet in a suburban warehouse, with a vision of launching a network of shoebox-sized nanosatellites into space.

"Fleet is very dedicated to a special market, this IOT -Internet of Things - the idea of 75 billion devices coming online in the coming years,” she says.

“It's the next generation of internet."

Fleet hopes to offer services to the transport, oil, gas, mining and agriculture sectors by improving connectivity in very remote areas.

Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research director, Andrew Dempster, said it is a booming field.

"The industry itself is worth about $7 billion a year. It's growing at 20 per cent every year, so it's the fastest-growing part of the satellite-and-space industry," he said.

Mr Dempster said about a dozen private Australian companies were moving to capitalise on nanosatellites, with more expected to follow suit.

He says it’s all because nanosatellites, also known as CubeSats, have the ability to watch and track what is happening on Earth at a much faster rate than what was possible even a decade ago.

"One of the things that CubeSats offers that the big satellites don't is the ability to deploy big networks of satellites.

"So, for instance, rather than image once every couple of weeks using a big expensive satellite, you could image every hour or so using a network of smaller, cheaper satellites.

"The images may not be as good, but the results are different. You're providing something at a much higher update rate," he said.

Fleet's chief technology officer, Matthew Tetlow, said massive technological improvements over the last decade have dramatically cut costs.

"Nanosatellites are small satellites, typically less than 10 kilograms. And, really, they've come about because of the miniaturisation of electronics globally.

“The amount of computer power that you have in your mobile phone is significantly more than what was on the Saturn 5," Mr Tetlow said.

"So, the electronics are becoming so much smaller, which is enabling you to put a whole lot more capability in a very small package."

With space-driven companies growing in popularity, calls for a dedicated Australian space agency are growing.

"We were very big in the space industry in the 50s and 60s, and we kind of dropped the ball then.

"Space 2.0 is our second chance, basically, to get back into the space industry and grow an indigenous space industry," Mr Tetlow said.

The federal government is reviewing the idea, as well as the nation's role in a global industry worth $420 billion.

The first report is due next March, around the same time Fleet hopes its first nanosatellite will be in orbit.

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