Yee Wei Law teaches cryptography and data protection and telecommunications. And device security and electronic and mechatronic engineering.
But rather than write endless academic research papers on attack-resistant satellites, for example, the network security expert decided to launch a start-up to help Australia develop a sovereign capability.
“Why not?” he says.
“Doing the same thing over and over again might not be the way researchers should think, so I advanced my idea to create secure communications software solutions for satellite constellations.”
Named Mesh in Space, Dr Law’s spin-off from his work at the University of South Australia was selected as part of a space program attracting human capital to the state called Venture Catalyst.
Housed in the traditional heartland of Australia’s defense industry, the aim is to incubate what could prove to be vital future technology as thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit take to the skies.
Satellites themselves have been around for decades, but the proliferation of constellations of these smaller versions is relatively new.
Billionaire Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 Starlink satellites and he wants its global footprint to include the vast expanse of Australia.
OneWeb, based in London, is also building a space-based global communications network.
In agriculture, new satellite constellations are being developed to monitor crops, climate change and weather patterns, while mining is ripe for deep data sets to more effectively assess the immense Australia’s hidden treasures.
Ocean intelligence also has much to gain from space technology.
ESPy Ocean physicist Ian Dewey looks skyward after starting 20 years ago with remote sensing and image analysis as a submarine hunter.
Personal contact has a lot to do with business.
“Many years ago I was a teacher for someone who is now a senior captain for Sea Shepherd,” he explains.
“He was working on the Gabon program to try and stop the poachers.”
Sea Shepherd and the Bob Barker, a vessel known to Australians for its anti-whaling work in Antarctic waters, have worked with the Gabonese government to combat illegal fishing in central West Africa.
“He said, ‘Ian, is there a way to see where they are before we spend endless hours looking for them?’
“And I said, ‘Of course I can fix this. “”
After sharing data and testing solutions, ESPy is now leveraging the space program to develop their business idea with Fisheries NSW.
“Yes, they want to arrest the idiot who comes out just to get 200 abalone and deplete a local stock,” Mr Dewey said.
“But they also want to stop the international hacker who comes in and not only takes everything but destroys the environment in the process.”
Dewey’s interest lies in using hyperspectral imagery to analyze a large area and track specific objects.
“The fact that it can be used in an environmental situation is an absolute plus,” he says.
Globally, aerospace and defense companies like Lockheed Martin are working on space technology, and the United States plans to have a mesh network in low Earth orbit this year.
But each company uses its own proprietary technology, which is completely opaque to us, says Dr Law.
Meanwhile, South Australia is now home to the Australian Space Agency which will support the so-called space economy.
UniSA’s Center for Innovation and Collaboration, which hosts the Venture Catalyst program, works with CSIRO, research organizations, industry organizations and international private individuals.
Dr Law says the resource-intensive sector must collaborate on joint efforts, including missions to the Moon and Mars in which Australia wants to play a part.
“A country can only deploy a limited number of satellites,” he says.
“Hence the idea of creating a network protocol stack that allows satellites from different organizations to talk to each other, and they would talk in such a way that they form a mesh in space.”
A mesh means that a satellite has multiple communication links with any satellite it can contact, says Dr Law.
If a satellite has a communication range of 100 km, all satellites within that range can talk to that particular satellite and form a mesh.
“From a security or reliability perspective, mesh technology is the best because if one link fails, all other links can carry traffic and information,” says Dr. Law.
“Civilian development and defense development go hand in hand.”
Satellites need to be deployed to detect hypersonic movement and send real-time data and images, with constellations capable of monitoring the entire sky, he says.
Russia recently tested hypersonic, intercontinental and short-range ballistic missiles over the invasion target of Ukraine, and defense satellites are able to detect activity from the Black Sea to the Arctic.
Australia and its allies are also monitoring missiles tested by China, North Korea and Iran.
Because these missiles travel so fast, they can quickly get out of a satellite’s range, but a mesh can alert any other satellites in range.
And if the hypersonic missile has jamming capabilities, the satellite will need to have multiple communication beams – optical and radio links, says Dr Law.
While most space technology is owned by private offshore companies and will be tightly owned, Australia’s blueprint identifies many space technologies as being in the national interest.
These include advanced optical and radio frequency communications, satellite positioning and navigation, advanced robotics, autonomous operating systems, space launch networks and small satellites for Earth observation and extended communications.
Australia aims to grow the space sector by 20,000 jobs and up to $12 billion by 2030, with all eyes on South Australia as a traditional defense industry hub from the country.
According to Prime Minister Stephen Marshall, the state is “a magnet for space startups” with its collaborative ecosystem and programs like Venture Catalyst.
Further west, Perth-based QL Space is investigating how space technology can help miners, but is considering moving its headquarters to Adelaide.
Chief Operating Officer Rajen Biswa said the satellite network and supply chain he had in mind would identify rare earth elements and critical minerals.
A Synthetic Aperture Radar Platform would use multi-spectrum imagery, sensors to give deep earth exploration capability and other earth observation, historical and geological information to create a rich data set that can be interpreted by artificial intelligence.
“Most of our team is in Australia and we also have a few teams working in India,” Mr Biswa said.
“Besides the huge potential for space ventures in Australia, the overwhelming support for space innovations across government and other sectors is a great incentive.”
“The space economy in Australia is accelerating at a very rapid rate.”