New Zealand’s an unlikely global leader when it comes to Space Tech, but more and more local businesses have got their eyes on the skies.
Space may be the final frontier, but farmers, scientists and governments are putting it to good use to observe what’s happening on Earth. In the final instalment of our six-episode podcast Digital tomorrow: Powering transformation, looks at how satellite technology has the power to transform industries.
With a few taps on his mobile phone, Peter Terpstra, the general manager of technology at Indevin Group, can see all the company’s acreage in Marlborough and the Awatere Valley. Indevin, one of the biggest wine companies in the country, has expanded into geographic information system (GIS) technologies to keep an eye in the sky on its business.
“Knowing where our assets are, knowing where our competitors’ assets are, but also doing geospatial queries about the land that’s available – whether it’s the right slope, the right altitude,” Terpstra says.
“We’re looking for opportunities for where we might acquire land and grow our supply base.”
It’s quicker than driving around the hundreds of hectares of vines checking things out with binoculars – you can’t see over hills, he quips. For Indevin, geospatial information is vital to informing logistics.
“When you’ve got a 50-foot-plus long track, driving up these rural roads, if you miss the entrance to the vineyard, sometimes it can be 15 minutes before you get an opportunity to turn around.
“One of the biggest wins we had was one of the simplest, which was to geospatially locate all the gates to the vineyard, so [drivers] didn’t overshoot them.”
GIS is also helping Indevin plan for a rapidly evolving climate future. Climate change has created a shorter window of time in which to harvest the sauvignon blanc grapes that Marlborough is famous for. Their GIS tech has created an optimal route to move between their different growers and vineyards to harvest everything as quickly as possible.
Grant Hunkin, who leads the Space Tech unit at EY New Zealand, believes businesses and government in New Zealand are only just grasping the potential scope of geospatial information.
He says after Cyclone Gabrielle, several public sector agencies started expressing interest in space technology for future emergency management, to quickly assess where damage has been done and how to best deploy resources.
But New Zealand’s private sector has been a pioneer in space technology for years. Invercargill’s own Peter Beck founded Rocket Lab in 2006, and the company has made a name for itself on the international stage through innovating smaller, cheaper rockets and satellites – including payloads smaller than a football. Morgan Bailey, Rocket Lab’s senior director of communications, says the Mount Wellington-based company has now grown to 650 staff.
“New Zealand being down at the bottom of the world, it isn’t usually top of the priority list for foreign governments or commercial organisations … but we have that ability now, as a nation, to command our future. If we want to build our own spacecraft, we can,” Bailey says.
She says when mankind first started sending missions to space, the satellites – much like the world’s first computers – were enormous, and as time and technology has progressed, they’ve gotten smaller.
“But the rockets designed to launch that technology didn’t shrink with them. It’s like driving a bus to drop off one passenger to space,” she explains. “So we shrunk the rockets down to match these small satellite sizes. And what that meant is we could launch them more frequently and cost-effectively.”
Rocket Lab’s workhorse Electron rocket, though small, can carry loads of up to 300 kilograms, which in their “rideshare” arrangements can include more than one client’s satellite. Prior to its entry into the market, companies or educational institutes looking to pay to send their satellite into space would be looking at a cost of $60 million, “which is just immediately outside the realm of possibility” for many, Bailey says. Electron has brought that cost down to $7.5 million – and sometimes lower.
“If you’re sharing that ride, then that brings it down even further. In some cases, we have customers that are launching in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’ve launched satellites for high school students, even.”
Bailey says there’s only 11 or 12 countries in the world with the capability to actually launch things into space.
“New Zealand got that capability without putting in dedicated government effort to make that possible. That’s landed on New Zealand’s lap through Rocket Lab, and now we [are] generating revenue from the rest of the world.”
One of the key investors responsible for Rocket Lab’s success was entrepreneur Mark Rocket – yes, Rocket. He changed his surname from Stevens to reflect his passion for space travel. He has now launched his own business building high-flying, high-resolution drones, Kea Aerospace, from the unlikely Space Tech capital of Christchurch.
“[Drones] gives a really unique loitering capability that satellites don’t have,” Rocket says. “[Satellites] go across the sky, come back in a few days, if you’re lucky. Aircraft, they’ve got to go back, refuel, wait for another good weather window.
“These high-altitude platforms provide a really unique capability where they can simply stay over a city or an area of interest and keep beaming back the high-resolution data.”
He says Christchurch has the University of Canterbury to thank for its burgeoning space industry – including several members of the Rocket Lab mission control room.
“They’ve been producing fantastic engineering talent for many years. Early on, they actually had some NASA sounding rocket launchers back in the 60s.”
For as long as he can remember, Rocket has been fascinated by space technology. In the age of Star Wars and Alien, he remembers he and other Kiwi kids being bummed out that they were “not in the right country” to make their dreams a reality. He says the development of New Zealand’s space industry has been “amazing”.
“I’d love to see a New Zealand aerospace nation where we have 10 Rocket Labs – where we just have this real thriving industry of really successful companies.”
Duration 25m 48s