How Silicon Valley is disrupting space

spaceship close upWe tend to think of the Space Industry as quintessentially cutting edge. As such it feels awfully strange to hear somebody compare it to the pre-Uber taxi industry – nowadays the definition of an ecosystem ripe for seismic technological disruption.

Yet comparing the two is exactly what Sean Casey (Founder and Managing Director of the Silicon Valley Space Centre) is doing, during a phone conversation ahead of his appearance at February’s IoT Data Analytics & Visualization event in Palo Alto.

“With all Silicon Valley things there’s kind of a standard formula that involves disruptive technologies and large markets. Uber’s that way. Airbnb is the same,” says Casey. “Space is dominated by a bunch of large companies, making big profits from the government and not really interested in disrupting their business. The way they’re launching their rockets today is the same way they’ve been doing it over the last forty years. The reliability has increased, but the price hasn’t come down.”

Nowadays, however, a satellite needn’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars. On the contrary, costs have even come down to as little as $150,000. Talk about economising! “Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on individual satellites, we can fly hundreds of satellites at a greatly reduced cost and mitigate the risk of a single failure,” Casey says. In addition, he explains that these satellites have tremendous imaging and communications capabilities – technology leveraged from a very everyday source. “The amount of processing power that you can fly in a very small satellite comes from a tremendous processing power that we all have in our cell phones.”

Entrepreneur Elon Musk was one of the first to look at this scenario, founding SpaceX. “Maybe he was bringing some new technology to the table,” says Casey, “but he’s basically just restructured his business to make launch costs cheaper.”

However, due perhaps in part to the historical proximity of the US government and the Space Industry, regulatory opposition to newcomers has been particularly strident. It is a fact that clearly irritates Casey.

“Elon Musk has had to fight regulatory obstructions put up by people in Washington that said we want to keep you out of the business – I mean, how un-American is that? We’re supposed to be a capitalist country that embraces new opportunity and change. Get a grip! That stuff is temporary, it’s not long term. The satellite industry is often reluctant to fly new technologies because they don’t think they can sell that approach to their government customers.”

Whereas lower prices open the door to new customers, and new use cases – often moving hand-in-hand with developments in analytics. This brings us to perhaps the most interesting aspect of a very interesting discussion. There are, on the one hand, a number of immediate feasible use cases that come to Casey’s mind – analysing the flow of hospital visits to anticipate and epidemics, for example, not to mention a host of economic usages, such as recording and analysing shipping, resources, harvests and more…

On the other hand, while these satellites will certainly offer clients a privileged vantage point from which to view and analyse the world (we don’t refer to the ‘bird’s eye view’ for nothing), precisely what discoveries and uses will be discovered up there in the coming years remains vague – albeit in a tantalising sort of way.

“It’s one of those things that, if you’ve never looked at it. If you’ve never had that data before, you kind of don’t know what you’re going to find. After this is all played out, you’ll see that this was either a really big step forward or it was kind of a bust and really didn’t amount to anything.  It’s sort of like asking the guys at Twitter  to show that their company’s going to be as big as it became after they’d done their Series A Financing – because that’s where these satellite companies are. Most of them are Series A, some of them are Series B – SpaceX is a lot further on.”

One thing that looks certain is that Silicon Valley is eyeing up space as its Final Frontier. From OneWeb and O3b founder Greg Wyler’s aspiration to connect the planet, to Google’s  acquisition of Skybox and Monsanto’s acquisition of Climate Corp – plus a growing number of smaller investments in space-focussed start-ups, not to mention the aforementioned SpaceX and Amazon’s more overt investment in rocket science, capitalism is coming to the cosmos.

Sean Casey will be appearing at IoT Data Analytics & Visualization (February 9 – 11, 2016 Crowne Plaza Palo Alto). Click here to register.