Spacetech is now a thing in the world. Just a decade ago, discussions around spacetech were left to organisations like Nasa or government agencies. However, technology has progressed faster than we could have imagined, so we now have a thriving spacetech industry around the world.

One region that has been somewhat slower to grow has been Southeast Asia, but the region is starting to catch up. To find out more, we spoke to Dr Norilmi Amilia Ismail, CEO and founder of SpaceIn. The startup is a spin-off company from Universiti Sains Malaysia, USM, where Dr Norilmi is a senior lecturer. The company is developing a picosatellite for IoT communication via satellite communication.

With its satellite, SpaceIn is aiming to tackle the issues faced by the IoT industry such as poor communication in remote areas, the high cost of satellite communication and regulatory hurdles.

The agriculture and telecommunications industries in Southeast Asia continue to grow aggressively, which has been the catalyst for satellite solutions around the IoT industry. The need for satellite imagery, data transfer and more, has grown exponentially, providing companies like SpaceIn with an opportunity to provide the necessary solutions.

How big is the ASEAN space industry?

SpaceIn research spacetech
SpaceIn researchers testing out the product

The space industry in ASEAN is an emerging industry that is becoming more important to this region supported by the benefit of satellite technology applications. The downstream segment of the space sector, which includes the usage of satellite images from Earth Observation satellites and the application of GPS from navigation satellites, has a big impact on developing the economy in ASEAN countries.

The size of the industry can be estimated based on a country’s allocation of space budgets. In Malaysia, the budget for satellite image acquisition is about USD5 Million per year. Thailand has a bigger budget with an estimated USD20 Million, Indonesia USD55 Million, the Philippines USD5 Million, and Vietnam USD1 Billion, for the next few years on earth observation satellite. Singapore is investing USD150 Million for R&D in space capabilities applicable to their local industries and Singaporean daily life.

Besides the space budget, the market for the space industry can be estimated from the size of industries that can benefit from space technology. The agriculture industry is among the main industries and can utilise satellite technology to increase productivity with a market size of about USD179 Billion. ASEAN countries also stand to benefit from satellite communication technology. For example, Indonesia is spread across 17,000 islands, so establishing fibre connectivity can be quite challenging, and satellite technology is more suitable. The satellite communication market is expected to reach USD14.32 Billion by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 7.1% for a five-year forecast (2020-2025).

Could you share some of the commercial applications of your products and technologies that the general public would be able to utilise?

SpaceIn is developing a small satellite operating in Low Earth Orbit, providing direct communication to IoT devices (sensors) in a remote area. The information from the sensor is sent directly to the satellite, and the satellite transmits the information to the ground station and to the user from the ground station en route to a data centre. The data centre will enable users to retrieve their data using a web-based or mobile app user interface. IoT systems need connectivity to the internet to store data in the cloud, therefore, it can be accessed everywhere at any time.

In the agriculture sector, Internet of Things (IoT) technology allows farmers to connect devices to the internet to improve agricultural operations. This process reduces the dependencies on manpower and all data is accessible remotely, eliminating the requirement for physical presence. The data captured by IoT devices help farmers monitor the health of their crops, contributing to increased farm productivity.

We work with a number of plantations located in remote or rural areas where internet connectivity is limited. Here, we use our satellite services to assist with data transmission from IoT sensors to the cloud. Apart from the agriculture sector, other industries such as the oil and gas industry can also benefit from satellite IoT services. The technology can be applied for well and pipe monitoring where the sensors are placed in specific areas to gather data for early intervention to address any damage on the site. Other sectors that could benefit from the IoT satellite services are asset tracking, management and transportation.

Satellite services are not new to the industries, but we stand out as we provide these services at a much lower cost. This is because we have successfully controlled the cost of satellite development and operation. The low-cost satellite service will provide businesses with more opportunities to access and leverage the benefit of satellite technology.

The SpaceIn team works on the product in the laboratory
The SpaceIn team works on the product in the laboratory

Where have you started to see interest?

A lot of interest is shown in potential customers when we conduct market surveys and validation procedures. One such customer is planning to use satellite IoT for their IoT devices connectivity at a durian plantation area. However, they had difficulty obtaining the services due to regulatory requirements on the frequency of connectivity usage, as the service provider is based in the United Kingdom. Therefore, they are seeking a local provider to manage the challenges of frequency licensing.
We have been approached by another potential customer requiring a solution to obtain data on clean water in the forest area for their mineral water business. The data has to be collected remotely to reduce manpower intervention and minimise frequent visits to the site. They may face internet issues when having sensors in a remote area, hence, Satellite IoT is among the possible solutions to address their concern.

The shortage of manpower in palm oil plantations brings us to discuss with organisations and companies in this sector. Currently, workers need to observe each tree to identify the problem and fruit to harvest. The usage of IoT can minimise the dependency on the workers and Satellite IoT provides a better option in terms of connectivity to the IoT device.

How large do you believe the spacetech industry can be in Southeast Asia?

According to a report by Frost & Sullivan, the Southeast Asia space industry market was valued at approximately USD2.27 Billion in 2020 and is expected to reach USD3.77 Billion by 2025. The space industry has come to a new era called the new space industry, where we can see more involvement of the private sector in the space industry. It is expected that this industry can grow bigger based on the increased demand for satellite communication and earth observation data, as well as the awareness of the satellite application.

There is no doubt that the spacetech industry will continue to grow in the coming years, as scientists and researchers now have access to a plethora of AI for controlling rovers and robots in the space industry, primarily for analysing data and making business decisions. Remarkably, AI has already aided in the discovery of approximately 2000 new protostars, which is an exceptional achievement.
As a team, we believe that the space industry is poised to be completely dominated by Ai, just as it has become the case with every other industry worldwide. It is encouraging to see so many people working in the industry with a shared vision for the industry’s future and success, especially in light of the many promising opportunities it presents.

What’s next for SpaceIn?

We are now concentrating on planning to complete the constellation of our IoT PocketQube satellite as soon as possible to provide full capacity and frequent services to customers in the next five years. With our IoT PocketQube satellite, we hope to provide low-cost, high-quality services across all industries.

In addition to our plans for commercialisation, we have also started our design for our newer and larger second satellite. Our new satellite will be slightly larger than the current IoT PocketQube, measuring 5cm x 10cm x 5cm. We are targeting to launch by Q4 of 2024 and anticipate that this new addition to its fleet will significantly expand its capacity and capability, allowing us to serve more businesses across all sectors and provide a vastly improved and efficient service in the future.
As the founder of SpaceIn, I am proud that we have come a long way since our inception, and I firmly believe that we are well-positioned to make a significant impact in the space industry in the years to come. Through our relentless focus on innovation and space technology, we hope to establish SpaceIn as a successful start-up among the key players in this dynamic and rapidly-evolving industry.