Yokogawa × Space [Part2]
― Following Part 1, we take a look at Yokogawa’s space business. The first topic is the business opportunities in space. Mr. Uchida, could you tell us more about remote sensing?
We are planning to establish a track record to enter this fledgling market. First, I’ll explain the current state of the satellite image data market and the remote sensing market. Satellite operations and data acquisition have been mainly led by government agencies. If a private company wanted to use such data, it had to do everything on its own, from purchasing the data to analyzing and interpreting the results, which was not easy. In addition, the satellites launched by these agencies were huge and mainly for military purposes, and the frequency and scope of capturing were limited. The agencies were reluctant to allow private companies to use the data for business. Recently, however, start-up companies have entered the satellite data market, and their small satellites can flexibly respond to needs. In addition, progress in machine learning and AI technologies has enabled end users to customize analysis methods, and there is now a service that allows users to view the analysis results.
Previously, the major clients were also government agencies, which purchased and used the data for military and security purposes. Few private companies purchased data and only in limited quantities. Available services were specialized in data analysis. In contrast, private companies are increasingly using satellite data for business. As the user base has expanded, some companies have started a service in which they purchase satellite data in bulk, analyze the data, and then offer the results to end users. In addition, satellite data are no longer a scarce resource, and are now merely regarded as one of many sources of information.
We believe that remote sensing data can serve as an enabler of business innovation, just like the ongoing digital transformation. In business, there is high demand for identifying a large number of objects over a wide area from a distance, and satellite data are ideally suited for this. By matching satellite data to such needs, we can help customers mainly in industry to accurately assess the situation and promptly take action. This will allow customers to operate in more sophisticated ways and gain value. Specifically, it is possible to integrate macro data collected by satellites with micro data managed by customers in their daily operations and to monitor management and operations.
― What do you think about the timing of entry? A latecomer or just in time?
It may be difficult to become a provider of data from optical satellites because the field is already crowded with many companies. However, there are still only a few companies that build small radar satellites. Anyway, selling data alone will reach a ceiling sooner or later. Therefore, satellite data firms are seeking ways to provide information that end users can use for solutions, but the industry has not been able to make a breakthrough in this area for several years now. I believe Yokogawa can enter this business and make a breakthrough.
The remote sensing market is expected to keep growing at over 10% until 2030 or 2040. The current market size, including earth observation, is about 260 billion yen, and it will continue to grow by 10%. This is a really promising market.
― I hope Yokogawa will be able to develop proprietary technology and use it to enter the market. Now, I’d like to ask Ms. Fukuma a question. Just like the optical fiber sensing adopted by JAXA, can Yokogawa expand its space business?
Space venture companies such as Blue Origin and SpaceX are developing fully reusable launch vehicles instead of expendable ones, and JAXA is also starting to develop spacecraft of this type. The reusable vehicle must be more reliable and safer. As I mentioned earlier, Yokogawa’s technology was adopted by JAXA’s Space Exploration Innovation Hub. The results obtained through joint research under this system are regarded as having high potential for implementation in society, so we see this as a promising business opportunity.
― I hear that there are some difficulties in applying existing technology to space, particularly the legal aspects. Am I right in thinking the Space Business Development Office has been helping R&D departments in this regard?
Yes, that’s right. Contracts in government projects tend to be complex and require much more paperwork than joint research with universities. Our office handles these time-consuming procedures on behalf of R&D departments, as well as the legal and IP issues involved. We offer a one-stop service for such matters.
Yokogawa may look like a company packed with engineers and scientists, but in fact, there are many areas in which people with liberal arts backgrounds can play an active role. Legal skills are needed for Yokogawa to grow by working with other space companies or acquiring them. Regarding the exploration of water on the Moon, the data business is starting to take off, which handles information on promising sites on the Moon for water mining and plant construction. We first need to examine its legality in the light of international laws. This is a frontier area where engineering and science professionals alone are not enough to create a business.
― Is there ownership of land on the Moon as well as on Earth?
The UN reached an agreement on this issue in 1967. Recently, the United States, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, and Japan have created the Space Resources Act, which states that resources on surveyed celestial bodies belong to those who collect them. However, only these four countries have passed such laws. Since the U.S. has joined this group, it is effectively an international standard, but the intentions of the two cosmic powerhouses, China and Russia, are not clear, so the matter may not be resolved easily. The legal aspects of space development are increasingly important and are on the agenda at every International Space Conference. Space is now attracting attention not only from specialists in science, technology, and resource exploration, but also from lawyers.
Many people are closely looking at the future of space law and space policy. For example, young lawyers have set up a group to study space law and are becoming increasingly active as the space business grows. However, the rules of the space business involve not only treaties but also “soft law,” which does not have legal binding force. To promote the space business, we need to keep an eye on the trends of countries’ laws and regulations, as well as rulemaking. In addition to government-led projects, the private sector is increasing its presence in the space field, and so strategies for intellectual properties are becoming more important.
― It looks similar to the environment surrounding AI. Besides research, there are metaphysical issues such as AI governance and ethics.
I agree. Just as the importance of space development has been examined, the ethics of space development are being discussed, too.
― I think such matters need to be resolved in order to embark on the space business.We have talked about remote sensing, the confocal scanner, and the space business. Now, I’d like to return to Earth. For example, car makers participate in Formula 1 racing and apply the technologies developed there to commercial automobiles. In the same way, is it possible to apply space technologies to business on Earth?
Of course. We are often asked why private companies including Yokogawa are investing in space. As a member of Yokogawa’s space business team, I’d like to stress that we are involved in space to care for the Earth. As you know, space is an extremely harsh environment. If we can establish new technologies for recycling resources such as air, water, food, and electricity in space, we can also use them on Earth and thus help preserve and improve the environment. This approach is called dual use. The extreme environment of space needs resource-efficient technologies for local production and consumption, a circular economy including recycling technologies, and technologies to build an eco-system. I’m sure these can also help solve problems on Earth.
There are various challenges in operating plants on the Moon, and Yokogawa’s unique technologies have the potential to solve them. For example, there are always operators stationed at a plant on Earth and they can deal with any problems, but that’s not the case on the Moon. Unmanned plants there will need autonomous control. And that technology can also be used on Earth. Take a microgrid as an example. A microgrid is a small-scale electric power system that uses a hydrogen fuel cell. It is easy to build this system and install it in a developing country or on a remote island. Such places may not have any experts and the system may not operate as expected. But if the system has an autonomous control function, it can be used anywhere in the world. Plants on the Moon have another problem: the time lag in transmission. In remote monitoring from the Earth, it takes one second to send a signal and another second to receive it. If we can solve these problems, it will be possible to safely operate power plants in remote islands and developing countries from Japan.
― Remote monitoring and operation have attracted increasing attention since the outbreak of COVID-19. Are automation and autonomy in line with these approaches?
That’s right. During the pandemic, many plants had to limit the number of operators in the central control room. When secure remote control is established, it will be possible to continue operation even if another pandemic occurs.
― What types of experiments are possible only in space?
The International Space Station (ISS) is operated by 15 countries, and various experiments are being conducted in experiment modules, including Japan’s Kibo. The results of experiments for life sciences, drug discovery, and materials research have helped to advance R&D and industrial activities on Earth (Figure 1).
Figure 1 Characteristics of experiments in space
For example, due to the lack of gravity, bone and muscle are lost more quickly in space than on Earth. Focusing on this problem, life science experiments are being conducted in the ISS to examine the effects of new drug candidates for osteoporosis and elucidate the causes of muscle atrophy. Although protein has a complex molecular structure, the microgravity environment makes it possible to produce high-quality protein crystals. By applying X-ray crystallography, it is possible to analyze the structure more precisely and thus design pharmaceuticals at the molecular level. Crystals produced in space have actually been used to develop new drugs for muscular dystrophy and periodontal disease. These experiments will help develop methods to prevent and treat various diseases.
The space environment is also used to determine physical properties and create new functional materials, which is difficult to do on Earth. Under microgravity, even molten materials can be suspended in a fixed position using electrostatic force, eliminating the need for a container and preventing contamination with impurities. This makes it possible to investigate the properties of the pure substance (density, viscosity, surface tension, and so on). These experiments are elucidating the mechanisms of material formation such as crystal growth and helping to develop high-quality, highly functional materials. In addition, the closed environment of the ISS is being used to develop technologies to reuse resources essential for life such as air and water. The highly reliable and efficient water reclamation technology developed for the ISS enables water to be used in a sustainable manner, especially in disaster-stricken areas or those with poor water infrastructure.
Figure 2 External view of the Kibo module (Source: JAXA/NASA)
― Are these experiments and projects in space applied to R&D on Earth?
Some of the R&D facilities in the ISS are run by private companies. Many companies on Earth outsource their experiments to these service providers as they try to accelerate their R&D and strengthen their competitiveness by using space as a place for innovation. Since the ISS is scheduled to be retired in 2030, one service provider is planning to build a new space station to keep providing experiment services. Space-based R&D will continue to support the quality of life, or well-being, of all people in various ways.
― Some people see the space business as a rich man’s game. In fact, wealthy people like Elon Musk (founder of SpaceX) and Yusaku Maezawa (founder of ZOZO) are splurging on space. But as Mr. Azuma’s talk about well-being and Mr. Shiratsu’s view on water as an energy source revealed, the reality is more practical and eco-focused; the space business seems to target green energy and blue energy just like we are currently pursuing on Earth.
That’s right. When water is electrolyzed with solar energy, the resulting hydrogen is called green hydrogen because the process is zero-carbon and zero-emissions. This technology can help solve many environmental problems.
― Finally, Mr. Uchida, how do you want the Innovation Center to contribute to the space business in the future?
There are still many things on Earth that cannot be measured. I’d like to develop technologies that will enable us to measure these things from space. Such technology would be of immense benefit to industry. As mentioned in Yokogawa’s Purpose, “our significance to customers and society is to fulfill our responsibilities for the future of our planet by using our ability to measure and connect.” The technology to measure things from space falls under the category of the “ability to measure.” Regarding the “ability to connect,” we can achieve it through various approaches. As I mentioned earlier, many start-up companies are entering the space business. However, they struggle to access end users and want to make up for what their technology lacks. If Yokogawa can connect these startups, expand their technologies, and strengthen their cooperation, the space business will be accelerated. I’m sure there are areas where only the R&D organization of a large company can serve as the last link, or the last mile, to success.
― When I first heard that Yokogawa was going to enter the space business, I couldn’t picture it in concrete form. But now I understand that Yokogawa has been involved in space for 60 years and that space is a place where we can utilize our ability to measure and connect. Thank you very much for your time today.
CSU-W1 Confocal Scanner Unit Arrives at International Space Station (Yokogawa’s press release)
Yokogawa Commences Research Project with JAXA Space Exploration Innovation Hub Center (Yokogawa’s press release)
Yokogawa Participates in Lunar Industry Vision Council and Jointly Submits Recommendations to the Government of Japan (Yokogawa’s press release)
Kibo Utilization Strategy: the third edition (Human Spaceflight Technology Directorate, JAXA)