EXCLUSIVE – The Future is Big with Miniaturised Satellites

To date, Professor Low (above photo) has helped develop and launch 7 Singapore-designed and built satellites successfully into space and orbit – no small feat considering Singapore’s tiny size and lack of access to space launch facilities. OpenGov spoke to Professor Low at EmTech Asia 2017 to hear more about his new role at NUS, the trend towards miniature satellites and his thoughts on the burgeoning satellite industry in Singapore. 

Could you share with us about some of the projects you are working on right now? 

I was previously the Centre Director for the Satellite Research Centre of Nanyang Technological University (NTU). I have just moved to NUS and will be starting a new research centre at NUS on satellite technologies. The trend of satellites is moving towards miniaturisation and this is something we hope to go into.

You mentioned about the miniaturisation of satellites as a trend in the industry. Could you tell us about the advantages of making and launching miniature satellites?

                   With miniature satellites, the manufacturing and launch costs are lower compared to having one big satellite. Additionally, you can launch many miniature satellites. By launching a constellation of small satellites, you can actually cover the whole Earth and reduce the latency time. It is also possible to provide new services that were not possible in the past. Traditionally, the satellite industry always builds one big satellite which is 1000kg or a few tonnes in weight, each time, companies can only afford to build one.                    Now, we can launch up to 50 or a 100 small satellites so they cover the whole Earth and each of them can pick up signals here and there. In the past, satellites are mainly deployed to perform remote sensing and take pictures.

         Moving forward, satellites can do more than just take pictures - you can use them to track ships to enhance maritime security; all the ships generate some kind of radio signal to identify themselves. The signals from these ships are normally monitored land-based, for example the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) will pick up these signals and identify the various ships. But once a ship travels to the middle of a vast ocean, it is almost impossible to pick up the signal. So if you have satellites to pick up these signals, ship owners and insurance companies can know where the ships are and monitor their movements in real-time.                              

Another area that researchers have started looking at but not yet implemented related technologies is the tracking of aircraft. Aircrafts also carry a type of signal called ADS-B to identify their location, so it is possible for satellites to pick up this signal and track the aircraft. These are some examples of location tracking services that satellites can deliver.                    Beyond these services, some of the more unique applications will be in the areas of Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine to Machine (M2M) communication. In the area of IoT, I have not really seen companies demonstrate the use with satellites yet but this may happen about 2 years later. What this means is that IoT devices can connect directly to the satellites and be monitored instantly even though they may be in a remote location.                    There are some niche areas of applications involving IoT and M2M. For instance, IoT and M2M applications can be used to monitor mining activities that are conducted outside the city areas or in deserted areas.  

 You were pivotal in helping Singapore design and launch satellites into space. What were some of the challenges faced in doing pioneering satellite work in a nation not necessarily known for satellite-related development and research?

         There was a lot of knowledge that we didn’t have in the beginning, as we were not trained in space-related work. We were all from electrical engineering and mechanical engineering so the challenge was in gathering a group of people to work and learn together. I think the main challenge is getting people who are willing to work together for a long period of 5 years or more. After building the satellite, we can’t be sure that it will be successfully launched, there are no guaranteed results.                              

So we really have to put in a lot of effort to gather the right people who will work together with a shared vision. I am heartened that in the teams that I had worked with so far, everyone puts forward his or her best effort to ensure the success of the projects. So far I have launched 7 satellites into orbit and all are successful. This doesn’t happen by chance, but it is because we had put in a lot of effort in testing the various components. The credit goes to the whole team, as no one person can do all these tasks.

For the satellites, how long do you intend for them to orbit in space?

Satellites are typically designed for a 3-year operational lifespan. Sometimes a satellite may go beyond that, for instance, the X-Sat (launched in 2011) - it is still doing well. The team still conducts regular telemetry to the satellite but we have scaled down its operations. When the satellite is newly launched, we worked intensely to conduct all the experiments because we have certain project deliverables. We make sure that all the experiments were conducted and gathered all the data needed, so that the information can be used for the next project.

You mentioned in a Channel NewsAsia report that Singapore has highly competent manpower to sustain a local satellite industry. What are your thoughts on the current development of the local satellite industry and what areas do you think the next phase of development should focus on?

In NUS, we have space related course modules and projects for engineering students. Through all these programmes, we train skilled manpower for the satellite industry, and this is an important component of the ecosystem that we are trying to build up. Besides ST Electronics (Satellite systems) Pte Ltd, we have seen a couple of small new companies coming to Singapore such as Spire, Astroscale and a few others. I think it’s evolving. Building a space programme is no easy task, it takes years to grow and nurture the programme.                    You look at 10 years ago when the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) started to grow the aerospace industry, it took some years for the big companies to invest in Singapore. Space ventures are even more difficult - do we really have the engineers who can build the satellites when the big companies come over? How do we overcome these obstacles?                    By demonstrating to the world that universities in Singapore are capable of building satellites, companies will take notice and be convinced that we do have a supply of engineers who have the skills to build satellites, if they are keen to come to Singapore.

Are there any specific programmes in NUS that offer satellite-related research and training? 

NUS Engineering offers a Design-Centric Programme in which students can take space-related modules in their first, second and third years. These modules are designed to impart some basic knowledge on satellites. Students who are in the second, third and fourth year of study can also participate in satellite-related projects in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

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