Lift Off: The gravity-defying ascent of Space in the South West

Decades of experience in aerospace engineering, manufacturing and research has proven to be the perfect launchpad for the South West’s journey into space. Jonny Williamson reports

The new multi-million-pound Isambard-AI supercomputer will serve as a national resource and help spearhead AI innovation and scientific discovery
The new multi-million-pound Isambard-AI supercomputer will serve as a national resource and help spearhead AI innovation and scientific discovery - National Composites Centre

The South West of England boasts a long history as a hub for aerospace, with Filton near Bristol emerging as a key centre for aviation since the early 20th century. Renowned companies like the Bristol Aeroplane Company have left an indelible mark, producing iconic aircraft such as the Bristol Fighter and the Blenheim Bomber.

Arguably the most celebrated aircraft associated with the region is Concorde, the supersonic jet collaboratively developed with French aero companies and assembled in Filton. Two decades after its final flight, Concorde remains an enduring symbol of aerospace innovation. 

Today, the South West hosts major aerospace players like Airbus, Babcock International, BAE Systems, GKN Aerospace, Leonardo Group and Rolls-Royce, each with significant sites in the region. Their collective presence has cultivated a highly skilled workforce, integrated supply networks and specialised infrastructure, including cutting-edge research centres and testing facilities.

The region has also fostered a dynamic innovation ecosystem that brings together large and small companies, government-backed R&D organisations and leading universities such as Bristol, Bath and Exeter.

With these formidable strengths to hand, it’s no surprise that the South West is swiftly gaining recognition as ‘the place for space.’ By leveraging its rich aerospace heritage with cutting-edge technologies, the region is positioning itself at the centre of the rapidly evolving space industry.  

With more than 250 space organisations, employing nearly 2,500 and supporting an additional 4,000 through the supply chain, the South West is the third-largest space region in the UK (behind London and the South East).

Rocketing growth

While aerospace has grappled with turbulence, the UK space sector has displayed continuous growth and strong investor confidence – growing three times faster than the global average. The South West has contributed significantly to this upward trajectory.

The region’s depth and breadth of space capability, particularly in academic research is a key factor, says Rebecca Huffee, Space West Cluster Manager at the National Composites Centre.

“The South West has got an incredibly strong academic sector, with hundreds of academics dedicated to space research. We have globally-recognised universities on our doorstep and a lot of what they’re recognised for is aerospace, materials and data science and artificial intelligence.”

iCOMAT’s patented process enables defect-free steering of composite tapes along curved paths for the first time - iCOMAT

An area where the South West has excelled is the cultivation of new businesses emerging from its academic and innovation base. According to Huffee, the region’s ability to translate fundamental research into market-ready products and successfully commercialise them is a crucial factor behind companies opting to set up or move to the region.

One such company is iCOMAT, the award-winning University of Bristol-spinout behind a game-changing technology disrupting how composites are designed and made.

Composites world first

Weight has a critical effect on the cost and success of a launch, while extreme conditions challenge the design of lightweight space craft and structures. Composite materials, with their high strength-to-weight ratio, are widely seen as the future of the space industry.

Composite layers consist of millions of aligned fibres offering exceptional stiffness and strength but only in a single direction. Due to manufacturing limitations, fibre strands are traditionally laid down in a single straight line.

Introducing fibres oriented in a different direction requires an additional layer, leading to structures that use more material than necessary and are heavier and more expensive as a result.

iCOMAT has developed a unique process for composites called Rapid Tow Shearing (RTS). This pioneering technique involves steering composite tapes along curved paths instead of bending them, overcoming previous manufacturing limitations.

Steering allows fibre tapes to be precisely and continuously placed at any point, meaning less material is used. This produces highly-optimised structures that are dramatically lighter and more cost-effective. RTS can also make use of wider and thicker tapes, meaning fewer layers to achieve equal or greater performance.

A fibre-steered satellite tube is said to be 8% stiffer, have a 24% higher buckling load and be 300% less likely to contain defects compared to current state-of-the-art.

iCOMAT has seen substantial growth since it began trading in 2019. The company has nearly 30 employees, a branch in Athens and is set to double its workforce over the next 12 months.

A government boost 

The success and growth achieved by the South West owes much to targeted support and strategic investment from government. The UK aims to achieve a 10% share of the £400bn global space market by 2030, as outlined in the 2021 National Space Strategy and subsequent 2023 action plan. More than £10bn in funding for space activities spanning the remainder of the decade has already been announced.

To foster future growth, there’s a focus on promoting regional development and diversifying beyond the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Cambridge and Oxford. This involves expanding the national network of spaceports and space clusters.

Currently, there are 17 regional space clusters of differing maturities spread across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Space West is one such cluster, hosted by National Composites Centre, in partnership with West of England Combined Authority, the Centre for Modelling and Simulation, and the Universities of Bath, Bristol, and the West of England.

In May 2023, the Government launched its Space Clusters and Infrastructure Fund, the first dedicated fund for UK space infrastructure. This will see more than £50m in matched funding awarded by the UK Space Agency to develop the R&D infrastructure needed to make space products mission-ready and sell them into commercial markets.

iCOMAT was among the first tranche of organisations to receive funding. The company has secured £4.8m to create a new fully automated production facility and form a cluster of domestic R&D and production sites. Both intend to leverage the UK’s expertise in composite materials and enhance the UK’s offering of space capabilities and services to international investors and major space players. 

Mission-critical data

The Centre for Modelling and Simulation is another Space Clusters and Infrastructure Fund recipient. CFMS, based at the Bristol & Bath Science Park, has secured £342,000 to develop the Collaborative Space Data Centre (CoSDaC) pilot project.

This dedicated space data centre that leverages advanced technologies such as simulation, Artificial Intelligence and robotics testing intends to address critical gaps in data centre services tailored to the unique requirements of space engineering.

With the cost of access to space decreasing, a surge in large-scale and ambitious space missions is underway, increasing reliance on innovative technologies such as AI and robotics.

Clusters create opportunities for local businesses to collaborate, win new business, attract new investment and create high value intellectual property and jobs - Satellite Applications Catapult

Complex concept development and testing will be carried out at a massive scale using digital prototyping underpinned by compute-intensive physics-based simulations. CoSDaC will deliver data centre-level computing to address these and other space engineering challenges, such as custom, hardware-in-the-loop testing and extremely remote deployments of AI systems.

Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “From AI to robotics, the new Collaborative Space Data Centre pilot will support the next generation of space engineering, using the recognised expertise of CFMS to further strengthen the Space West cluster.

“This will create new opportunities for regional growth and foster strategic global collaborations that could help develop new solutions to some of today’s biggest challenges. “It is a brilliant demonstration of the potential of our thriving space sector across the UK to develop innovative infrastructure that helps us deliver increasingly ambitious missions and capabilities.”

Cosmic intelligence

AI and robotics are among 11 critical technology areas identified by the UK Space Agency that, if existing strengths are developed and expanded, would put the UK’s growing space sector in a stronger position to collaborate with international partners including NASA, the European Space Agency and JAXA (Japan’s space agency).

According to the UK Space Agency’s Space Exploration Technology Roadmap, AI and autonomous systems can enhance the capability and efficiency of missions.

“As you move further away from Earth, autonomous navigation helps spacecraft explore planets and moons without the need for direct, continuous control by human crews back on Earth or in orbit. The technology is also important for the growing number of commercial satellites in low Earth orbit.”

The roadmap notes that machine learning and AI “have already proven useful through automated algorithms for ‘crater counting’ which has been used as valuable base data to estimate the age of planetary bodies.

“Furthermore, autonomous systems can compensate for regions in space with few or no fixed references for spacecraft to position themselves through various ‘localisation’ efforts.”

The report highlights a clear opportunity for the UK to lead in applying AI to space exploration. Rebecca Huffee agrees, stating that the South West is well-positioned due to its inherent technology strengths, supported by local communities like techSPARK, Silicon South and SETsquared.

South West universities are playing a pivotal role in this area. The University of Exeter’s Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, for example, is globally recognised and provides a hub for data-intensive science and AI activity.

The University of Bristol has also been chosen to host a new national AI-focused supercomputer research facility at the National Composites Centre. To be known as Isambard-AI, the new multi-million-pound supercomputer will serve as a national resource for researchers and industry experts spearheading AI innovation and scientific discovery.

Huffee is excited by the prospect of Isambard-AI and has already begun collaborating with industry to identify use cases for the supercomputer.

“The space sector is evolving at an unprecedented rate. A particularly exciting development is the growing recognition that space can be used in many diverse ways. From revolutionising transport and logistics to harnessing the space environment to develop new materials and manufacturing processes. This is where the future of space is heading and the South West is helping lead the way.”