At this year’s SmallSat Symposium in Silicon Valley, February 6-8, 2017, attendees exchanged perspectives on promoting innovation and development in the satellite industry, all surrounded by exhibits of the first computers and early innovators who paved the way. Due to attendance twice as high as last year’s event, the SmallSat Symposium experienced a slight upgrade—the event was moved from last year’s tent in the Hogan Lovells, Menlo Park parking lot to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. This dramatic increase in attendance is just one indicator of the significant growth the SmallSat industry is experiencing.
Before the conference sessions, participants gathered at sold out workshops focused on the regulatory, economic, and technological issues SmallSat companies confront. In the “Legal and Regulatory Roadmap” workshop, Tony Lin of Hogan Lovells led a discussion among international and U.S. domestic agency heads and industry veterans including Tahara Dawkins, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”), Attila Matas, ITU, David Hartshorn, Global VSAT Forum, and Elizabeth Evans, Dentons. Presenters spoke about the role of the ITU in coordinating the global use of spectrum, basic regulatory issues encountered by SmallSat startups and best practices to deal with them, and methods for sharing spectrum and orbital locations. Despite the failure of the air conditioning system, attendees persisted and shared their perspectives and suggested solutions on these issues.
On the first day of the conference sessions, panelists shared their expectations for continued growth of the SmallSat industry. For example, a representative from Tauri Group Space and Technology predicted over 1,100 satellites will be deployed in the next five years, based on currently funded systems alone. Looking more broadly at all proposed systems, the number of deployed satellites over the next five years could be as high 12,000.
Keynote speakers Steve Jurvetson and Sir Martin Sweeting shared this optimism about the trajectory of the industry, including current opportunities in the areas of asset tracking, machine-to-machine communications, responsive disaster monitoring and management, improved weather prediction, and the enormous potential for future growth in on-orbit manufacturing due to advances in materials sciences and robotic manufacturing.
Representatives from the SmallSat industry, including from the launch logistics, legal services, and international regulatory spheres, discussed the various dynamics SmallSat companies must consider. Representatives from Spire Global, Planet Labs, Harris Corporation, and SpaceFlight Industries all expressed the need for cooperation and healthy competition, not protectionism, in order to support continued growth of the industry. However, all panelists cautioned that securing funding and regulatory approvals were significant obstacles and shared perspectives on how to confront each in turn.
For example, panelists discussed the “chicken and egg” problem, where SmallSat developers cannot reach the next stage of deployment absent additional funding, but investors are unwilling to invest without assurance that a larger deployment would provide returns on investment. Panelists also agreed that, along with funding, uncertainties in the international regulatory process are among the biggest obstacles for SmallSats. SmallSats, like all satellites, are fundamentally international in nature and must comply with International Telecommunication Union (“ITU”) regulations. Attila Matas from the ITU urged SmallSat applicants to work with regulators to understand the ITU process.
Once funded and through the relevant regulatory hurdles, SmallSat companies still confront the uncertainty and difficulty of launching satellites into space. Launches are expensive and scarce, and even after a launch is purchased, it may be delayed or cancelled. Yet despite these difficulties, SmallSat operators are optimistic that the industry will continue to develop and grow.
One hurdle facing the SmallSat community is the issue of spectrum management and coordination among private and Federal operators. At the Commercial SmallSat Spectrum Management Association (“CSSMA”) meeting held at the Menlo Park offices of Hogan Lovells, participants from NTIA, NASA, NOAA, the ITU and the FCC, tech investors, and SmallSat companies came together the day after the SmallSat Symposium to share perspectives. Participants from the SmallSat community included Planet Labs, Spire, Terra Bella, and Kepler, to name a few.
Hogan Lovells attorney Tony Lin along with Randy Segal and Steve Kaufman from Hogan Lovells’ Space and Satellite practice, hosted the event and facilitated a working meeting to discuss current SmallSat issues and pre-coordination strategies with Federal entities. Attendees agreed that in order to promote the development of SmallSats, collaboration and cooperation between the private and public sector is essential.