Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Clyde Space: E-Commerce for Satellites

Below is an interview with Craig Clark, founder and CEO of Clyde Space, cubesat component provider based in Glasgow, Scottland.  Clyde Space is leveraging e-commerce to design and sell the next generation of spacecraft.

Q. Tell us little about your background.

Craig Clark: Quite an ordinary background really. I grew up in central Scotland, left school when I was 16 and went to the University of Glasgow to study electronics. When I graduated in ’94, I was lucky enough to land a job at Surrey Satellite technology Ltd, based out of the University of Surrey (at the time). I had a fantastic time working there for 11 years, with the company growing from 30 to 300 staff in that period. I feel very fortunate to have learned about how to do successful small satellite missions from the pioneers. Leaving there was difficult, but it was time to move on. It was only when I decided to move back to Scotland that I considered starting my own space company; it was never in my plans before that, not even for a second.

Q. What is Clyde Space?

Craig Clark: I started Clyde Space to be a small satellite power subsystem supplier. In 2005 hardly anyone was aware of CubeSats, including myself. I learned about CubeSats when exhibiting at the IAF conference in Fukuoka (I started working fulltime on Clyde Space 4 weeks before that conference), and I thought it sounded like a great concept with huge potential. On returning from Japan, I started to put together plans to develop power components for CubeSats, and this has ultimately led to us being one of the main CubeSat vendors in the world.

To me, Clyde Space is about taking a different approach to space; I hope that Clyde Space can play an important part in taking nanosatellite technology to a level where this satellite class can enable high utility value missions and applications.

Q. In a recent post here at the SpaceBusinessBlog, you had commented about Clyde Space’s push toward more web-based purchases of satellite components. Describe your vision for satellite e-commerce and Clyde Space’s current implementation of that vision.

Craig Clark: It is an idea I had from quite early on when working on CubeSats. The cost of CubeSat systems is low enough to enable credit card purchases, so it seemed a natural progression to have an online shop. Ultimately, we are aiming to have as much content as possible in our online shop to enable CubeSat mission designers to make informed decisions and purchases online.

Our next step is to provide free online mission design tools. We have a Cubesat Design Tool (CDT) at Beta level running on Matlab at the moment, and this selects the off-the-shelf systems from our shop to meet mission requirements. It is not quite ready for release to our website, but we hope to have it live this year at some point. With this tool we want to make ‘space accessible to non-space people’. Basically, you’ll plug in you mission requirements, however detailed or sparse, and you get a satellite design that meets those requirements. This will be the next big step for us in terms of space ecommerce.

I get criticized for being too open about our plans, as it opens us up to being copied too easily (this has already happened), and let’s face it we won’t be credited for the ideas, but this is one of the unavoidable facts about how the world works today. For instance, blogs get plagiarized all the time, but the best way to view it is it’s a complement that someone wants to copy you. I also think that too many good ideas never see the light of day due to over protectionism. Having our plans out there just drives me more to make sure we get there first.

Q. How else do you see the web affecting your interaction with your customers?

Craig Clark: The web can be very powerful in this respect and I expect that we will find in the future that we will be able to interact with customers in an open online environment. I don’t think the community is quite ready for that yet, but it will happen. I love the idea of having product forums where our engineers can answer customer questions about our products online and for everyone to see.

To be a successful company, you need to be open and honest; if we have a problem with a product, we need to contact our customers. If we do this in an open, online environment then everyone can see that we address the problems and fix them. Similarly, if a customer has a good experience with our products, that kind of feedback on the product page would be great for us.

Q. How has standardization affected your business?

Craig Clark: I’m not sure it has changed our business because we have always produced standard products. What I would say it that there are elements of the space industry embracing standardization and others that dismiss it. Change, as they say, is inevitable and now that the CubeSat Genie is out of the bottle it ain’t going to go away. Standardization for nanosatellites (1-10kg) is here to stay and I think we can expect it to migrate to small satellites – in fact, NASA is already enabling this with their 6U and 12U CubeSat launch pods.

What the next challenge for the community is: how do we manage and agree on the development of these standards? For instance, we want to use a high reliability connector on our boards, but how to do this and get buy in from the rest of the community? Probably, the standards need to be managed independently of any one company or organization – perhaps there is a role here for the IEEE or the AIAA to facilitate this properly. In the meantime, we’ll forge ahead and try to keep everyone in the loop…

Q. What lessons can the large satellite providers learn from the successful standardization of CubeSats?

I’m not sure they need to learn anything from the success of standardization in CubeSats. I think that the guys involved in ‘Plug-n-play’ and Operationally Responsive Space will be looking at CubeSats and perhaps adapting their approach, but for the large communications and science missions, Boeing, Lockheed, Astrium, etc. will still continue to produce subsystems and structures to their own standards.

The big boys sticking to traditional approaches is also demonstrated in the way that Boeing have produced their CubeSat platform; to my knowledge they aren’t using off-the-shelf systems or community standards, instead it looks like they have developed their own in-house standard. I think it would have been great to see Boeing working with the innovative, small CubeSat companies to help to evolve CubeSats from student satellites to commercial satellites. I think they would have benefited from the innovation that small companies can bring to that kind of partnership. I can tell you that we are working with other large space companies for this very reason, and the relationship is working really well, so all is not lost on that front :o)

Q. How has ITAR impacted your sales in the US?

Craig Clark: Being based in Scotland, ITAR doesn’t really affect us as much as you might think. The UK is, of course, the USA’s closest ally, so generally US companies and organizations are happy working with us. I love the attitude of US customers, and I have a huge respect for the commitment that the US has towards space; it is truly visionary. However, there is no doubt that we miss out on a lot of business from the US because we are not American, and this is not only because of a desire to buy within the USA, but also because of the problems that ITAR brings. I have heard that ITAR rules between the UK and USA are about to be relaxed, so I am hopeful that the US government will allow Americans to talk to us openly about technology again.

Q. How would increased access to launch services affect your customers (even if the price for launch services were unchanged)?

Craig Clark: More launches for CubeSats would certainly stimulate the CubeSat community. What we need is to educate launch providers on the launch method of CubeSats and for them to adapt their model on how they accommodate this type of secondary payload. IMO, a CubeSat launch pod should be treated like part of the launch vehicle avionics. There should be no need for fit-checks, mass-dummies or launch campaigns. If we can work with the launch providers to have a FEDEX approach to CubeSat launches, then we’ll be getting to where CubeSat launch services need to be. It’s the only way to get launch costs in line with the satellite cost.

Q. How do you see the industry evolving over the next 10 years?

Craig Clark: The space industry in general is very dynamic at the moment, especially with the recent success of the Falcon 9 test flight. With respect to our area of the industry, nanosatellites and CubeSats, there is certainly going to be an increase in the capability of very small spacecraft and the numbers of missions. The killer app of the CubeSat is the fact that they enable spacecraft swarms, and I am certain that within the next 5-10 years we will see the first nanosatellite constellations being launched with 100+ satellites per mission.

I read a book about disruptive technologies recently and it presented the phrase ‘Burn the Ships’. Essentially what this means is, there’s no going back. CubeSats are going to disrupt the space industry, but I think near term they will not so much change the way we do space, but more so enable a multitude of new applications, such as:
  • passive altimetry using reflected GPS signals,
  • global Automatic Identification system for ships or even
  • bush fire early warning systems.
They will also provide access to space for everyone due to the simplicity and low-cost nature of standardization. Is it time to burn the big spaceships? Hang on to your matches for a wee while yet…

1 comment:

  1. There is a Cubesat Forum (see the link) that can help students to build small satellites at no cost unlike Clyde Space, which can be a solution but just for the rich.