Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Home-made spacecraft and the British technology industry

Here is a link to the latest video from Armadillo Aerospace:
http://media.armadilloaerospace.com/200 ... ndHeld.wmv

This shows a vertical take-off, hop to 200 metres, followed by a vertical landing. It is a very impressive feat by a small team who have only spent a few million dollars. They have managed a long list of achievements, including successfully completing both parts of the Lunar Lander Challenge - the hardest part of which involved being in the air for 180 seconds and translating to a landing pad 100 metres away. Masten Space Systems and the father-and-son team of Unreasonable Rocket deserve honourable mentions as well.

Armadillo Aerospace have been so successful that they actually developed a test liquid oxygen / methane engine for NASA. It sounds as though they are revenue positive, and are working towards manned space flight up to 100,000 feet. They are doing this by throwing the old rocket design methodologies out of the window - instead of designing and building final hardware, they are building many test rockets cheaply. It is an iterative process, and one that has given them a great deal of knowledge and experience very quickly. They have occasional spectacular crashes, but the costs are so (relatively) low that each crash is hardly a disaster, and each enhances their knowledge.

I would love for there to be a British team attempting this sort of thing (aside from Starchaser which, unfortunately, I do not hold out much hope for). AA have found the legislation and permit aspects difficult; I think they would find it next to impossible here in the UK. There are other groups as well, from those with small but remarkable aims - like Cambridge University Spaceflight, to the grand and potentially world-changing projects - Reaction Engines.

This really makes my blood boil. UK space is worth £5.8 billion, mainly in the form of services - this is not to be sniffed at. The PDF above shows the sectors that UK space operate in; not launchers, but satellites, support services and component supply. In comparison, the European Heavy Launcher Ariane 5 cost $7 billion over ten years to develop.

Yet instead of shouting our achievements from the rooftops, we mumble and act as though we are half embarrassed about it. Instead of showing the brilliance of British science and engineering, we show the X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Big Brother. Even science television on the BBC has gone downhill - Tomorrow's World has been replaced with the risible Bang goes the Question.

┼×encan is deeply concerned about the lack of women going into science and engineering. I agree, but expand the concern - the lack of people graduating in the hard sciences is a massive problem. We should be encouraging people to be doing insanely great things here in the UK, yet the entire system appears to be designed to actively discourage it.

So I would like to make a proposal. Set aside £100 million a year, and set it into 17 grant chunks :
3 £20 million chunks,
2 £10 million chunks;
2 £5 million chunks;
10 £1 million chunks.

These grants will be awarded to small- and medium-sized companies in order to help them develop certain projects. the £1 million grants would go to companies with less than 20 employees; the £20 million chunks to those with less than 100 employees. The money must be spent on specified projects over a two-year period. All research should be publicly released at the end of the 2-year period, and the British Government has a share in patents and other rights for the technology.

An example would be a company wanting to develop a new type of generator for wind turbines. they may have a working prototype or a potential, workable design, but not have the funds for development of it. The grant would be given towards a set project, and the Government would also help with other items - for instance putting the company into contact with manufacturers of components, or giving them access to Government wind tunnels, test areas or other resources.

Once a company has been awarded a grant, it cannot reapply for at least two years (i.e. at the end of the two years of the previous grant). The company will give full access to a small team of scientists and experts who will report on progress and check for wastage of money. £5 million a year should be able to attract a small, focussed team that contains good general specialists. Hopefully such a role would become very prestigious. Additionally, the Government team will help with legal aspects (everything from permits to patent law).

The technology areas that could be targeted are many:
*) Space-related (satellite systems, communication systems, launchers)
*) Engineering-related (carbon nanotubes, new construction techniques etc)
*) Green and environment (wave power, wind power, turbine tech, carbon capture etc)
*) Medical (new drugs, new uses of existing drugs, water cleansing techniques, field medicine)
*) Safety related (car safety research, food safety research etc)
*) Communications (new mobile systems, new radio systems, new TV systems etc)
*) Far-out pipedreams (new energy techniques, bubble fusion etc). However, the potential pay-off of these should be correspondingly large.

The sorts of people who I see benefiting from such schemes are the traditional British backroom boffins - people like Dyson in his earlier days and Trevor Bayliss. Some of the people helped will achieve insanely great things.

There will be some key aspects to make such a scheme a success: Firstly, the selection of projects will need to be handled with care and without political interference. A longshot project with only minimal chances of working may get a £20 million grant, but only if the potential rewards are great enough. Secondly, the companies will need to be watched carefully to ensure that the money is only spent on the defined projects. Strangely, this should be easier with small companies than with larger ones.

Some money will undoubtedly be wasted. But the resultant knowledge will not be wasted, and the calculation is simple. One successful project alone may earn the country billions of pounds.

To put it simply: The Olympics is costing £9.3 billion for something that will (despite what the Government says) have negligible 'legacy'. That could fund the above scheme for nine years.

So let's do it.

No comments: