DCU Alpha and ESA want Irish start-ups to lead IoT satellite revolution

7 Dec 2018

DCU Alpha CEO Ronan Furlong. Image: DCU

ESA delegates descend on Dublin for an event that aims to help Ireland’s booming spacetech sector tap into satellite communications and IoT.

This morning (7 December), Dublin City University’s (DCU) innovation campus, DCU Alpha, is hosting an event that will likely see greater number of Irish start-ups take satellite communications (satcom) and internet of things (IoT) technology into Earth’s orbit and beyond.

As part of the satcom/IoT MakerSpace project, delegates from the European Space Agency (ESA) are in town for a meeting at DCU Alpha about the project, with three-quarters of this year’s project’s participants bidding for up to €1.5m in ESA contracts.

The MakerSpace project gives companies the opportunity to use satcom and IoT to solve real-world challenges, with the spacetech sector in Ireland achieving new heights of late.

Ahead of the meeting, DCU Alpha’s CEO Ronan Furlong gave us an insight into Ireland’s spacetech start-up scene and what the project brings to the table.

How have satcom and IoT merged over the past few years?

Up until relatively recently, the mobile and satcom industries have operated on parallel tracks and have seldom intersected. While mobile operators satisfied the vast demand for personalised on-the-move connectivity in population centres, satellite focused on connectivity in remote regions.

But then, two issues converged. One was that mobile traffic became increasingly data-driven, meaning that the throughput capabilities of mobile networks needed to grow exponentially – hence the advent of 5G.

The second was that advances in the satellite industry slashed the cost of bandwidth. This breakthrough has helped position satellite communication as a cost-effective option for delivering broadband while reducing operating expenses – a theme we should see incorporated into the National Broadband Plan in due course.

This mainstreaming of the satellite industry has led to a trend of private company involvement in the spacetech sector, including companies like OneWeb (backed by SoftBank), which is rolling out its own constellation of satellites. We are however about to see a further ‘democratisation’ of space as more and more smaller companies get involved in the sector.

How important is Ireland’s membership of ESA to Irish spacetech start-ups?

Earlier this year, Enterprise Ireland said that over 60 Irish companies were currently benefiting from partnerships with ESA, with 2,000 people employed in these companies in 2014, and that figure expected to double in the near future.

In DCU Alpha, about 5pc of our companies are now engaged with ESA, including Robotify, Ubotica, Enbio and Taoglas, to name a few. Ubotica, for example, was recently contracted by ESA to test the Irish-engineered Intel-Movidius Myriad 2 chip for space readiness, by putting it in the path of a high-energy beam in CERN’s particle accelerator facility.

Taoglas, for its part, recently received over €600,000 in funding from ESA to commercialise its ZRM integrated antenna technology, with a specific focus on backhaul over satellite for the IoT connected hardware market. Tony McDonald from Enterprise Ireland commented at the time that, “Taoglas represents one of a growing number of Irish companies benefiting from ESA support in the expanding IoT market.”

What do you hope start-ups and makers get out of the satcom/IoT MakerSpace project?

The MakerSpace project was essentially a new form of incubator programme, enabling early-stage companies and SMEs to engage with ESA and undertake specific technical projects, without having to undertake the standard, highly onerous and bureaucratic ‘onboarding’ process an ESA partner or supplier.

ESA would admit that while it is geared up to engage effectively with other massive organisations like Airbus or NASA, it is not necessarily well structured to engage with the world of start-ups. This, in turn, closes off a massive area of innovation for ESA as the satcom industry is now seeing makers, start-ups and even garden-shed hobbyists developing space sector technologies and applications.

Ireland’s first satellite, for instance, is being built by students, with support from DCU Alpha companies like Enbio, which is providing the thermal control coatings for the cubesat.

This kind of initiative speaks to the democratisation I mentioned earlier. It’s nowhere more evident than in the MakerSpace project here in DCU Alpha, where we hosted a series of start-ups and SMEs, providing ESA funding for them to develop solutions to specific challenges that DCU and ESA jointly conceived.

For example, a start-up firm that went through the MakerSpace programme has designed a life jacket aimed at preventing tragedies like the Rescue 116 disaster. Killian Dolan, a recent DCU engineering graduate, developed the prototype life jacket in response to a call from ESA and DCU to create a wearable device that could transmit its location using L-band satellites.

What makes DCU Alpha a good place to develop spacetech right now?

One of the key reasons why DCU Alpha is a good place to develop spacetech solutions right now is the presence of Mark McCarville and Mindseed. McCarville has 30 years’ experience in the telecoms industry and specialises in securing ESA funding for Irish companies.

We were extremely fortunate to hire him as the programme manager for the ESA MakerSpace. Aside from the dedicated ESA funding opportunities that he assists DCU Alpha companies with, there are a whole series of adjacent technologies and services being developed in DCU Alpha, which makes it a good place to build a spacetech – or other connected hardware – business.

DCU Alpha companies tend to fall into one or more of three categories: companies that collect data (via their own or third-party sensors), companies that transmit data (via M2M technologies or discrete networks like Sigfox) and companies that use the data to derive insights and transform industries.

Some companies like Cathx Ocean are using computer vision and data analytics to monitor subsea cables and other assets, while others like Rentalmatics are using complex sensors and analytics to provide fleet management insights for rental car companies.

We also have medical device companies like Fire1 and Shimmer Sensing that are collecting vast quantities of biometric and biophysical data to do predictive analytics on people’s health and wellbeing.

So, whether it’s an oil rig, a car or an internal organ, everything is becoming instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, and the communications layer to all of IoT is now increasingly incorporating satellite communications – making DCU Alpha the ‘go-to’ location for these kinds of companies.

Is it easier now than ever to get into developing spacetech through the maker movement?

The maker movement has democratised hardware development in the same way as the web has done for software. It’s still ‘hard’ to be a hardware company, but the advent of 3D printing and other rapid prototyping technologies – as well as low-cost sensors, open source software, distributed manufacturing solutions etc – is making it easier for start-ups to compete in all sectors, including spacetech.

How else does DCU Alpha envision working with ESA in the future?

The satcom/IoT integration theme for the MakerSpace project has generated a large amount of interest and engagement from Irish start-ups and SMEs with ESA in satcom, and we are hoping to replicate that success with another programme, this time looking at the integration of satcom and 5G.

Satcom will be an essential part of the 5G infrastructure, with the satellite component being integrated into the overall ‘communication map’. Service providers will need to provide seamless connectivity between terrestrial and satellite. Traffic will be dynamically steered to the best transport options available according to bandwidth, latency, network conditions and other application-specific requirements.

It’s essential that Ireland grasps this reality and creates a forum for start-ups and SMEs to play in this satcom/IoT arena – and this is what we are hoping to explore next with ESA and indeed Enterprise Ireland.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic