How aerospace startups are democratising access
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The aerospace industry has always been dynamic, but the last decade has seen innovation gain unprecedented impetus driven largely by startups.
The decision by the US government to commercialise spaceflight about a decade ago was pivotal. This shift saw the emergence of startups such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, companies that are now the new leaders in the space race.
Like elsewhere in the broader startup ecosystem, startups in the aerospace industry benefit from accessible funding and ready access to technology tools such as cloud computing, IoT and AI that are now widely available and relatively cheap.
Startups are revolutionising the aerospace sector by their ability to bring ideas to market much faster, a ‘no-fear-of-failure’ approach and substantially lower costs. The fastest-growing segments in the industry are UAVs, satellites, space communication systems, various services for maintaining space and aviation infrastructure, and soon, suborbital tourism.
The 2021 version of the Dubai Airshow introduces Vista, a platform for startups to showcase their innovations alongside the biggest names in the regional and global aerospace industry.
Until just a few years ago, aerial photography was mostly limited to the military, well-resourced hobbyists and businesses with access to full-size aircraft. Today, small store-bought drones are many times cheaper, can take high-quality images and video, and are easy to learn to fly.
The above highlights how innovation has democratised access to technology, levelled the playfield and helped launch completely new business models. The associated low barrier to entry has brought unprecedented opportunities for startups of all kinds.
GeoDrones is a UAE-based startup that uses drones to deliver various commercial services including aerial surveying, inspections, mapping and data modelling and visualisation.
GeoDrones Founder and Managing Director, Mohamed Shawky says drone technology has democratised technology in unprecedented ways. “Our customers of all sizes now have access to cutting-edge technology in surveying, aerial mapping, inspection and maintenance at a fraction of the cost.”
And this is just the beginning, says Shawky. “Drone technology is developing rapidly and soon this technology will expand to nearly all industrial and commercial applications,” he adds.
Soon, we will have thousands of drones traversing our skies, key to solving some of the problems that plague modern urban living such as traffic gridlocks, overcrowding and pollution. In a city like Dubai for instance, hundreds of thousands of people could move out to the city’s outer core and be delivered to the main commercial centres by so-called air taxis in minutes.
A study by Frost & Sullivan sees air taxis or vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft beginning in 2022 in Dubai and expanding with a CAGR of about 46% to more than 430,000 units in operation by 2040.
Dubai has launched a set of regulations to facilitate a much wider usage of commercial drones. The rules lay the foundation development of the “Dubai Sky Dome” initiative, virtual airspace for unmanned aircraft for delivery, monitoring traffic and ultimately an air taxi system.
The space startup sector funding has been defying gravity over the last decade with hundreds of startups popping up in the past five to seven years following SpaceX’s success. It has also taken on new impetus in the region, thanks to the UAE’s ambitious space programme.
The multibillion-dollar investments by the UAE government for its space programme has coincided with a focus on startups. For example, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre’s (MBRSC) Innovation Challenge has been running competitions for startups, awarding thousands of dollars to finalists and exposing them to the programme’s various initiatives.
Dubai Airshow participant SARsat Arabia has developed a UAE-built airborne synthetic-aperture radar (SAR), a form of radar that is used to create two-dimensional images or three-dimensional reconstructions of objects, such as landscapes.
“Our vision is to launch the first commercial Earth Observation (EO) Satellite in the MENA region,” says Ahmed Alzurabi, co-founder, SARSat. “With the capabilities of SAR, we can provide EO data whatever the weather conditions are. SAR can see through clouds and during the night, which allows it to provide reliable data around the clock.”
The UAE is proving attractive to startups from around the world thanks to its massive aerospace, defence and space industries. To date, investments in space technologies exceed $5.4 billion while its aviation sector is worth $47.4bn aviation sector, approximately 13.3 per cent of the country’s GDP.
Four aviation startups from the US, UK, Palestine and Russia picked Abu Dhabi as their base after participating in a 12-week accelerator programme organised by Abu Dhabi-based tech ecosystem, Hub71.
These include VISTA partners Gothams, the only early-stage aerospace, space and defence accelerator in the Middle East that seeks to empower ambitious companies to scale and innovate.
Aviationfly is a UAE-headquartered startup that is cutting itself a niche in the pilot training sector, without undertaking any training itself. Instead, it has created an ecosystem that brings together established pilot training organisations, pilot training industry suppliers and aspiring pilots among other services.
Aviationfly will also be a participant at the Vista platform of the Dubai Airshow. “Exhibiting at the Dubai Airshow was an easy decision for us,” says Maximilian Buerger, Managing Director of Aviationfly. “The event will most likely be the largest aviation industry event of 2021 and the meeting point of aviation leaders from around the globe,” says Buerger.
The aerospace industry faces a set of new challenges in the next decade, partly driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. These include reduced revenues, customer demand for non-physical touchpoints and enhanced safety and health concerns. The industry can engineer faster and more enduring recovery by working with startups to bring agility, cost-savings and innovation in years to come.