The first time I suction-cupped a GPS receiver to my windshield, wires running down to an external antenna and a heavy Dell laptop, my father asked about the monthly cost of such a device. He was skeptical when I told him that navigation signals from space were a free service provided by the U.S. government.
Fifteen years on, most of us carry GPS in our pocket — though we call it our phone — and rely on satellites to the extent that Bill Gattle, the president of Harris’ Space and Intelligence Systems division, calls space-based communications the “dialtone of this generation.”
Gattle and I recently chatted about where the space industry is going in the next five or so years. Venture capitalists are investing big time in space startups. Established companies are employing more people for space projects as well, which he expects will “create an explosion of new ideas.”
Meanwhile, the big satellite makers are no longer making the margins they were when they were the only game in town, so they’re looking to diversify and focus on volume.
“Almost all the stuff that we thought was really, really hard in the ‘80s and ‘90s and we thought we should get a premium for and make a lot of profit on is becoming commoditized,” Gattle said. “That’s why you see them looking at this commercial market and going ‘I gotta get in the commercial market.”
Lockheed Martin, for one, is looking to supply solar arrays that might power tech companies’ new, small satellites.
There’s also a shift beyond hardware — the spacecraft and its sensors — to analytics and applications. For example, imaging satellite leader DigitalGlobe plans to buy Radiant and start providing analytics, not just pictures. Meanwhile, Harris is working with a company called Highland Agriculture to provide analytics to farmers, and looking for more markets for information gathered in space.
“The cloud is a cloud, but it’s the analytics on top of the cloud that makes them powerful,” Gattle said. “So that’s where their margins are going to go up.”
The next revolution? Gattle is looking for satellites to exchange data in orbit, rather than through ground stations.
“That’s the transformation I believe will happen in the next five years,” he said.
Like a landline that works without a second thought, Gattle says space is too little on the minds of those who depend on it. “Most people when they think of space think about a walk on the moon or something,” he said. “They don’t think about it in their everyday life.”
That’s not the case for senior Pentagon leaders, who have made protecting space communications from near-peer militaries and hackers a top priority. But Gattle wants regular folks, not just engineers and physicists, to know the importance of space. So he told his 6,000 employees to try explaining what they do each day to their families at home.
Now, he said, “I’ve got people writing me notes from all over the place who were saying, ‘Wow, I’ve all of sudden became cool to my kid because I worked on the GPS satellite and I linked it to Pokémon Go.’”
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