Manufacturing Initiative Risks Squandering Prime Opportunity for Australia’s Space Industry
The government announced its modern manufacturing initiative (MMI) on 1 October as the centrepiece of its strategy to help Australian manufacturers ‘scale up, improve competitiveness and build more resilient supply chains’. The MMI will support six national manufacturing priorities: resources; food and beverages; medical products; recycling and clean energy; defence; and space.
The decision to identify space as a priority area is a welcome signal that the government recognises the importance of Australia playing an increasingly significant role in the global space sector—which was worth US$366 billion in 2019 and could grow to US$1.1 trillion by the 2040s. But it’s fair to say that the MMI could have done more to really boost the nation’s space activity.
The program’s budget of $1.3 billion will be allocated across the six priority sectors over four years. So the annual financial pie is small, and dividing it among so many areas could quickly dilute the impact of each investment. If the money is apportioned evenly across the six priorities, the space industry would get around $52 million a year from government. The MMI is a start, but its effect might be less than hoped. A misfire rather than a blast-off?
Certainly, recent years have demonstrated that Australia is no longer content to sit on the sidelines and be a passive recipient of space capability. Australia is becoming an active provider of space services, not only for its own purposes, but also as a part of the growing global market. Now is the time to match words with resources, including serious funding. The MMI just may not be sufficient.
Australia’s role in supporting US space exploration, with both robots and humans, goes back decades. Ground facilities and the personnel to run them have been Australia’s forte. With the establishment of the Australian Space Agency and the growth of a commercial space sector aligned with the ‘Space 2.0’ paradigm, new opportunities will emerge and the MMI should feed into them very effectively.
We’re now building satellites, establishing up to three space launch sites and building orbital-class launch vehicles. The MMI can supercharge this process, facilitating faster development and a more expansive space sector for the future. But the funding has to be sustained and sufficient to make a visible impact, and it needs to be carefully targeted.
Developing the ground segment of our space sector needs to be given just as much priority as building and launching spacecraft. The development by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia of a satellite-based augmentation system, or SBAS, will enhance our use of global navigation satellite systems like GPS. This will open up new applications for enhanced precision in positioning, navigation and timing services in agriculture, weather prediction, urban planning, ‘smart cities’, driverless cars and the internet of things.
More accurate positioning services—to less than a metre in some regions—will allow new approaches for ‘fourth industrial revolution’ manufacturing. SBAS also opens up greater use of robotics and new approaches to logistics for the Australian Defence Force in the coming decade. The MMI should be targeted to allow SBAS to enable secondary and tertiary expansion of new services and technologies.
Expanding the Australian space capability through digital design and development and through additive manufacturing on a large scale means Australian small satellites and smart ‘cubesats’ can be produced locally at scale and speed, and take full advantage of a rapid innovation cycle and low cost. Rather than wait years for a single satellite costing hundreds of millions of dollars, Australia is well placed to allow the commercial space sector to exploit ‘e-satellite’ concepts, borrowed from similar US Air Force efforts to develop future air combat capability. Such a process would enable spiral development of new capabilities and experimentation in both virtual and real space for a rapid innovation cycle. MMI funding would directly benefit this part of the space economy.
However, it’s pointless if satellites are being locally developed only to sit in a ‘clean room’ at some other country’s launch pad for months or even years, waiting for a ride into orbit. The rapid innovation cycle established at the start of the acquisition process would be wasted, Australia would become less competitive in the global space sector and opportunities would be lost. We need to focus on developing a sovereign launch capability.
With part of the MMI funding going to the defence priority area, there’s potential for confluent approaches that would allow both defence and space to more effectively benefit from the initiative, and reduce the risk that the money won’t be sufficient to deliver useful outcomes in either area.
Defence’s approach to space capability has to be forward-looking—and should seek to compress what are unnecessarily long and wasteful acquisition processes. Space 2.0 promotes the benefits of fast acquisition and the use of digital design and development in the commercial space community to unlock development of space capability.
With the strategic uncertainty facing Australia, time isn’t on our side. The timelines for new projects need to be accelerated, so that the ADF has a full spectrum of space capabilities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, satellite communications, and space domain awareness sooner, and in a manner that is consistent with the defence strategic update’s recognition that space is an increasingly contested domain.
The government’s MMI represents an opportunity for a paradigm shift away from the ‘slow, large and few’ to the ‘fast, small and many’ approach that Australia’s commercial space sector is well placed to provide—but only if the money is used effectively. A broad approach of simply throwing funding at a few key areas isn’t going to work when the amount is so limited.
If the basis of Space 2.0 is agile, smart and rapid transformation, then the government’s funding of the space sector has to emulate that approach. It may ultimately be up to the private sector to shape Australia’s future in space, dragging government behind it.