New satellite innovation centre will propel UK space industry

Posted on 4 Jan 2012

The Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, has set out a plan for Britain to become the best place in the world for science and research at a speech given at the Policy Exchange in London today.

Following The Manufacturer’s earlier report that Mr Willetts would announce plans to boost universities’ funding from external sources by 10% over the next three years, the UK’s space industry has emerged as a core cog in the government’s long-term strategy to boost UK industry.

The creation of a new Catapult centre in satellite applications, providing businesses with access to orbit test facilities, to develop and demonstrate new technologies, means that  industry is not only George Osborne’s ‘march of the makers’, but the flight of them too.

Mr Willetts criticised the the relationship between the UK’s academic institutions and industry in his ‘Our high-tech future’ speech, pointing to the fact that despite generating 14% of the world’s most cited papers, the UK registered just 2.2% of global patents.

He asserted that greater implementation of space technology, originally designed for one area of industry, should be taken up within other sectors.

Mr Willetts used agriculture as an example of a sector that could benefit from increasing satellites and space-based systems. Space technology “will transform the accuracy of the spreading of fertiliser and patterns of planting in agriculture,” he said.

The Universities and Science Minister said that “it will also provide access to advanced systems for data capture and analysis, supporting the development of new services delivered by satellites.”

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has been given the responsibility for boosting links between industry and higher education, as well as setting up a network of elite technology innovation centres, now called Catapult Centres.

A fourth centre will be added to the three already in existence in the area of satellite applications, to “provide business with access to in-orbit test facilities to develop and demonstrate new satellite technologies.”

This will be funded on a three way basis, with funding arriving from the government, competitively won institutional contracts and the private sector. Assistance from the government will come out of the £200m that Prime Minister David Cameron announced in October 2011 when he launched the technology and innovation centres programme.

Graham Chisnall, Deputy CEO and managing director of Aerospace at the trade organisation, Aerospace, Defence and Security (ADS), said: “Today’s announcement is an important recognition of the UK space industry and the UK’s successful specialisation in satellite technologies.

On a less positive note, Imran Khan, campaign director at the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), commented that David Willetts reiterated a whole series of positive measures the coalition is taking to incentivise more private sector investment – but no political party has yet outlined a clear alternative vision for the UK economy.”

Mr Khan added that “The Government should spell out what they think a ‘rebalanced’ economy looks like – what would really count as ‘success’ for their innovation policies?”

“We’ve got a clear opportunity to jump-start economic growth in the high-tech sectors this year with the sale of the 4G mobile spectrum set to raise billions of pounds for the Treasury. That cash should be invested in science and engineering to help create the UK’s platform technologies of tomorrow.”