Space technology is developing fast, and, with every advance, it is becoming more accessible to industry. Today, satellite communications (satcoms) and space-based data are underpinning new ways of operating that both boost sustainability and profitability. Some projects are still in the planning stages, offering great promise for the future, but others are already delivering practical results. What was too expensive or too complex a few years ago is now a viable proposition – and every industry needs to look again at the capabilities space technology can offer now, and will be able to offer in the near future.
Increasing satellite networks open up possibilities
The benefits of space technology broadly fall into two categories: connectivity that can reach into situations where terrestrial technologies struggle to deliver and the deep, unique insights delivered by Earth Observation (EO) data. Both depend on access to satellite networks, particularly medium earth orbit (MEO) and low earth orbit (LEO) satellites that offer low-latency connectivity and frequently updated data. Right now, the satellite supplier market is booming, driving down the cost of access to satellites. Suppliers are increasingly tailoring their services to emerging customer needs and the potential applications are incredible – as a look at the transportation sector shows.
New sustainability potential in rail
Satellite technology is a critical part of revolutionising connectivity on trains. We’re partnering with the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and the European Space Agency (ESA) to deliver a combination of satcoms and 5G technology that will allow the rail sector to optimise how trains are run, at the same time as offering better connectivity to passengers. The Satellites for Digitalisation of Railways (SODOR) project will provide low latency, highly reliable connectivity that, combined with monitoring sensors, will mean near real-time data guides operational decisions. This insight will help trains run more efficiently with fewer delays for passengers. Launching this year, SODOR will help operators to reduce emissions by using the network more efficiently, allowing preventative maintenance and extending the lifetime of some existing trains. It will also make rail travel more attractive and help to shift more passengers from road to rail (that typically emits even less CO2 per passenger than electric cars do).
Satcoms are driving change in aviation
In the aviation arena, secure satcoms are transforming air traffic management and bringing significant sustainability benefits. Working with Inmarsat and European Space Agency, we are developing Iris, a new satellite-based air–ground communication system. Iris will use secure connectivity to relieve pressure on congested traditional radio links, which are near capacity. As well as better communications, Iris will enable complex trajectory management in European airspace, and this will support more effective routing. This optimisation will cut time in the air through better route planning and minimising waits to land which, in turn, will reduce fuel usage and CO2 emissions.
Sustainability and cost wins in shipping
We’re currently exploring how space-based EO data can be translated into a practical service that will identify optimum routes for the shipping industry. At the moment, route optimisation services focus on the potential impacts of weather at sea. We’re interested in going a step further, looking at how ocean circulation currents and eddies can speed up or slow down a sea journey. For context, ships sailing through just one fast streaming ring of a large eddy may gain in the order of 30 to 60 minutes in travel time - or lose 40 to 90 minutes. Operators can achieve further time savings by closely planning when a ship enters a tidal current. Using this space-based data to keep passages as short as possible will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hold down fuel costs. As well as optimising ship routing, this data also has the potential to generate more accurate estimations of when a ship will arrive, reducing the waiting time anchored offshore queuing for a port slot and the emissions generated. As air pollution caused by anchored ships near large ports can be detected in satellite observations, cutting waiting time is clearly a big sustainability benefit.
A sustainable future for automated and smart transport systems
Satellite data and communications will also play a fundamental role in shaping a sustainable future for road vehicles. Right now, the transport sector contributes around 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, of which 91% is from road vehicles – and this needs to change.
A future where Electric Vehicles (EV) dominate will need a smart infrastructure to monitor and control the electricity network, managing highly variable supply and demand, as well as a large network of EV charging points. EO data will be critical in future forecasting models for wind and solar production, to help manage a consistent flow of green energy.
Satellite communications will also be pivotal. As more wind and solar installations join the electricity network – often in remote locations – satcoms will step in to deliver highly reliable connectivity where 4G struggles to reach. It will underpin a growing network of EV charging points, connecting each point to the internet for operational management purposes, for billing and access app functionality and to enable users to access them wherever they are.
Satellite technology will increasingly be a part of the vehicles themselves, particularly when automated driving becomes more mainstream. It will be essential for every vehicle to have continuous connectivity to support real-time software patches, map updates and inter-vehicle communications. Already, satellites provide regular software updates to vehicles and enhanced safety through an in-car emergency call service.
Make space for sustainability in your future
At CGI, we have been deeply embedded in the space industry for more than 40 years – and we continue to be involved with the latest emerging technologies and use cases. We have a strong track record of translating these advances into practical benefits for our customers that make sense on both a business and a sustainability level.