Section 2: Disruption in Process:
Robbie Schingler, Planet Labs: The Space Renaissance
Robbie Schingler, Planet Labs
Planet Labs builds web tools to make data accessible to everyone for solving commercial, environmental and humanitarian challenges, and has launched 71 satellites in 16 months. Other start-ups in this field include Skybox Imaging (acquired by Google) and StarVision Technologies.
Only five years ago, NASA retired the Space Shuttle programme, and the $300 billion aerospace industry lumbered along with its aversion to risk, its slow tech-development cycles and high costs. The space race has come and gone. Years have passed with little significant disruption in humanity’s most advanced sector of technology. Where once this sector captivated the public’s hearts and minds, interest has now waned. Bleak as this may seem, change is afoot and buzz is building into an undeniable space renaissance.
The resurgence in space advancement is largely driven by Silicon Valley funding and tech development cycles, which leverage efficiencies of scale and miniaturized technology to launch the aerospace sector into the 21st century. Where once a satellite, commissioned by the government and designed and built by contractors, could cost over $1 billion to complete, start-ups are building satellites at a fraction of the cost in a fraction of the time, and can iterate on satellites in real time, responding to change and new information. In the software industry, this is called “agile software”. For the space sector, we call it “agile aerospace”, and it is revolutionizing the way we explore space and understand our planet.
The rebirth of aerospace is in part a result of the first university-designed and university-built satellites. Known as Cubesats, these very small satellites aimed to teach students about the system-engineering challenges of building spacecraft and utilizing a capabilities-based approach with readily available technologies. Surprisingly, Cubesats became a standard size, and it was common to send them into space as secondary payloads on space-bound rockets, giving these new players low-cost access to space. Over the last decade, university students were trained in aerospace to build things differently with the Cubesat methodology; as a result, agile aerospace and a new mindset has been applied to traditional methods of space technology.
This new way of thinking has ushered in the space renaissance. In the same way that a seemingly impossible quest for knowledge brought human civilization out of the dark ages, a new quest for the impossible is shedding light on the aerospace industry, and there is a similar explosion of invention and creativity from new and unlikely sources.
There is no better example of new entrants and existing players adapting to the changing landscape than Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk (also chief executive officer of Tesla Motors). Instead of governments funding and leading the process, an entrepreneur started it with $100 million of his own money. Today, Elon has created a vertically integrated company to build launch vehicles and human spacecraft, and the US government is an anchor customer. The major shift here is not just about a new entrant, but, additionally, how the government is adapting its role to be a customer and creating a favourable regulatory and investment environment that supports new entrants in space. This is how a nation state creates a 21st-century aerospace capability.
Over the last three years, we have seen exciting new entrants in the aerospace sector that are leveraging new funding and business models. These financing models include venture capital financing, crowdfunding, private equity, corporate investment and international entrepreneurial activities. With new and creative ways of raising and investing capital, companies and projects like Skybox Imaging, Nanosatisfi, Planetary Resources Arkyd-100, PlanetIQ, Facebook’s Internet.org, Rocket Lab from New Zealand and many others are entering the aerospace sector at a record pace. What was once the purview of nation states can now be incubated with a small group of people in a garage.
This access and willingness to partner is creating a new market, and all signs point to a healthy environment for disruptive innovation to occur. Undoubtedly, this growing market will eventually be met with regulation and monitoring, as the presence in space becomes more lucrative and privatized interests wrestle for an opportunity to participate. But competition is strong and the skies are clear: there is funding, there is talent and there is the will for Silicon Valley to have more moonshots and to move the bar from apps to aspiration.
This is not a new space race; there will not be only one winner. Instead, there will be dozens of new technologies, business models and new actors entering aerospace. This is the beginning of a movement where new players can innovate quickly, rethink the possible and do the unimaginable. This is a movement that re-envisions how we see our planet and home and, more importantly, the information it holds. This is a movement that begets an opportunity for humanity to look itself in the mirror and act in real time in a way that we’ve never known before. No longer will mining data for intelligence take place in the vacuum of an individual business. Instead, the collective home we call earth will be our source, and with it, the opportunity to learn and make it better.