Zettabytes, Satellites and Industry 4.0 – How Australia can win in the new space frontier

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Satellite in space

The information tsunami now gripping humanity is bringing to life new sectors on a scale we have never seen before.

In summary

  • Opinion piece by Professor Aleksandar Subic, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Development) and Associate Professor Alan Duffy, Swinburne University of Technology
  • An abridged version was published in The Australian

Today’s second and third year university students, if they were born in the late 1990s, will very possibly live across three centuries. They will be 101-year-old elders in a dawning 22nd Century.

What will industry look like to them in the year 2100? And how can Australia gain the full benefit from their contributions to global knowledge?

These are things we think about and plan for. But we won’t have to wait 80 plus years to see such radical transformation of our industries – cycles of technological advances are measured now in months rather than decades.

The information tsunami now gripping humanity is bringing to life new sectors on a scale we have never seen before.  The latest is the new wave of industrial activity around space exploration and utilisation.

Close to 50 nations currently have large government space budgets, nine of them over $1 billion.

For Australia and the world this is Space 2.0.

In the first iteration of the space age, Australia engaged only at a government level. Remember the movie The Dish? Back in the ‘60s there was little or no connection with industry. Our involvement thrived for a short time, ultimately settling into a defence and government effort with the United States.

Australia’s chances of success are much greater this time round.

Links with industry

This year is set to be a standout year for Space 2.0 in Australia, propelled by the establishment of the Australian Space Agency, with its key focus on supporting the growth of Australia’s space industry.

CSIRO and Boeing recently signed a $35 million agreement on space-related activities. The two partners just last week marked 30 years together with a capital injection into space tech research.

A series of milestones will be met this year including potentially a private satellite launch provider established in Australia by the end of the year.

A virtuous circle

All this is happening concurrently with – and integral to – advances in Industry 4.0.  What we mean by this is that the needs of Industry 4.0 – for example, high performing global bandwidth at low cost – are being met by step changes in space technologies and vice versa.

Industry 4.0 provides the rapid prototyping and in situ reprogramming or reassignment of satellites. Satellites meanwhile enable remote asset management, and the tracking and relaying of information from embedded sensors.  It is a virtuous circle.

The open-standards and off-the-shelf components facilitated by Industry 4.0 permit mini economies of scale in Space 2.0.  This contrasts to the bespoke precision engineering of Space 1.0 where single customers (i.e. defence departments) were risk averse and highly tailored. Now fail fast is the mantra.

Data, data, data

At the source of both revolutions are leaps in computing and data science – the outcome, if you like, of Silicon Valley going into orbit.

Swinburne is at the heart of Australia’s space opportunity. Swinburne is proudly home to OzGrav – the $31 million Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery and part of a 1500-strong team around the world (including also recent Nobel Laureates).  The observation last year of the death spiral of two neutron stars heralded a new dawn in our interstellar understanding. This discovery of gravitational waves would not have occurred but for major developments in data science.

OzGrav houses one of the most powerful computers in the world – a supercomputer called OzSTAR which establishes Swinburne as an academic leader in supercomputing with a focus on hybrid CPU-GPU technology and data science.

We are making history in a myriad of other ways too. We want to mention just three of many that are central to the Australian space opportunity.

At Swinburne. In Victoria.

First, we recently led the formation of a $12 million network of Industry 4.0 Testlabs which will speed up collaboration and co-creation between educational institutions and industry in Australia.  Swinburne, as part of this, will be home to the world's first operational Industry 4.0 Testlab for carbon composite manufacturing. Such lightweight materials are key to future assets in space where lower launch mass means vastly cheaper cost to orbit.

We conduct research in virtually all Industry 4.0 advanced technologies including Industrial Automation, Internet of Things, Big Data, Smart Sensors, Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence. Critically the latter technique has been developed to operate in the low-power demands of space ushering in a new era of Smart Satellites.

Secondly, research at Swinburne’s Centre for Microphotonics is pioneering super powerful next-generation photonic chips. 

The internet has been – and always will be – driven by photonics, from data centres to intercontinental undersea fibre-optic links. Key photonic inventions gave birth to the internet and will continue to underpin its future.

One of the biggest challenges globally is how we meet the bandwidth and major energy demands that big data requires.

Our colleagues at Swinburne’s Centre for Micro-Photonics report that global internet traffic, growing exponentially, recently broke through the Zettabyte (ZB) per year (10 to the power of 21 bytes, or a billion Terabytes) barrier and is expected to triple, reaching 3.3 ZB per year by 2021.

Data and communications now account for about 10 per cent of total global energy consumption, with dramatic increases expected as developing countries come online, further increasing global carbon emissions. Data centres generate so much heat that Google, Facebook and others have been building them in northern Scandinavia since 2013.

Our research at the Centre for Micro-Photonics is producing photonic chips with the performance, efficiency, reliability, level of integration, and cost needed to help solve some of the biggest issues the world will ever know.

And thirdly, Swinburne has partnered with CSIRO in Silicon Valley in the United States, becoming the first Australian university to do so. We are embedding our researchers in the most mature innovation ecosystem in the world.  Alongside this we are building research partnerships with innovative companies, including leading companies such as Planet which now operates the world’s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites.

Startups not superpowers

Space 2.0 is underpinned by revolutionary new technologies that mean rockets and satellites can be built by startups not just superpowers.

From 3D printing of rocket engines, to microelectronics that spawn tiny cubesats – each 10 cm sided cube as capable as a car-sized satellite of old – we are witnessing breakthroughs by orders of magnitude.

In the past, the space age was about firing rockets and humans into space.  The current revolution is about harnessing information from space to help humans on Earth. It promises unique insights to improve conditions on our planet and to drive growth in the commercial world.

In agriculture, satellite images assess crop yields and smart tags monitor livestock. The CSIRO’s Ceres tag is giving farmers constant updates on livestock movements and habits, allowing them to respond quickly to injured or ill cattle and sheep in remote locations. Combined with a feedback loop to the animal, next generation sensors will herd cattle away from SatNav defined virtual fences that farmers can outline on smartphones. No more costly barbed wire or herders to be seen.

Two of the most exciting new Australian SMEs, Myriota and Fleet, are already commercially successful in the space and satellite sector, enabling precision agriculture, supporting advanced techniques in mining, and in providing solutions for emergency response and supply chain and infrastructure monitoring.

We have learned a lot over the past half a century. Technological disruptions are creating evermore commercial opportunities in space; costs are coming down, private ownership in the market is going up, and we are seeing a growing confidence that the benefits – this time – will accrue to Australian industry and across the economy.

Opinion piece by Professor Aleksandar Subic, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Development) and Associate Professor Alan Duffy, Swinburne University of Technology

An abridged version of this opinion piece was published in The Australian.