What role is there for space and satellite industries in Industry 4.0? Plenty. Credit: Adobe Stock

The 4th Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, is underway. The first industrial revolution involved machines powered by steam and water, the second began with the harnessing of electricity, the third was launched with advent of computers and supercomputing, and now the fourth encompasses the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications, 3D printing, Big Data analytics, autonomous robots, life science developments, and more.

What role is there for space and satellite industries in Industry 4.0? Plenty.

Take IoT. IoT refers to connected devices that can transmit data with no human assistance or intervention and each such device has a unique identifier that makes it recognizable.

IoT devices are broken into five categories: consumer (e.g. home appliances), commercial (e.g. vehicle to vehicle communication), industrial (e.g. precision agriculture), infrastructure (e.g. sensors for smart cities initiatives) and military.

Currently, there are roughly 20 billion connected “things” or devices with expectations for more than 80 billion connected devices by 2025. Walmart has over 7 million connected devices alone in the United States to monitor its refrigeration systems. Satellites have global coverage and thus for many “things” — ships on the high seas, drilling stations in Alaska — satellites are the only possible means of sending and receiving “messages” from these connected things.

But even in the most advanced countries, there are large gaps in quality connected services. Indeed, many rural areas may have little to no reliable, consistent coverage. New low Earth orbit satellite systems are encouraging and positive developments in the fight to achieve “universal service.”

All the connected devices create more and more data — Big Data — to provide more accurate information for precision farming and smart mining.

Smart transportation and smart cities efforts are also underway. It’s clear there will be many further advances in the next decade or two when autonomous vehicles become predominant, a development that is necessary to keep traffic in the largest cities moving. Autonomous vehicles allow three times the number of autos per lane per hour than human controlled vehicles.

Shipping ports, already lacking necessary infrastructure and further harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on essential workers — through illness, contact tracing and work-distancing measures — are sorely in need of further digitization to replace paperwork and more complete tracking of inbound and outbound ships and containers (both empty and full). In the pre-COVID world, nearly 800 million twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) containers were handled by ports across the globe in 2018 but a very limited number of those containers were tracked, at least through the first and last mile. Conditions inside containers can also be monitored through connected devices. More generally, satellites provide the necessary backhaul and backup to terrestrial connectivity as well as complementing terrestrial services for greater efficiency allowing for gains in the “smart” movement of goods. In some parts of the globe, satellites are the only viable capability for tracking and monitoring this movement.

Industry 4.0’s relationship with the space industry is symbiotic. The space and satellite industries also lean on other features of Industry 4.0. 3D printing is an element of Industry 4.0. Space vehicle and satellite manufacturers are using 3D printing in their facilities. One company, Relativity Space, is heavily reliant on massive 3D printing equipment to manufacture its medium launch vehicles. Further, 3D printing has already been tested aboard the International Space Station for in-space manufacturing uses.

Artificial intelligence is also part of Industry 4.0. In this regard, so-called digital twins are used for spacecraft and satellite servicing and manufacturing. Specifically, a digital representation of the actual spacecraft or satellite is created, and artificial intelligence is utilized to analyze new models and simulations with the assistance of IoT-collected actual flight data from existing spacecraft and satellites.

Industry 4.0 and the space industry also face regulatory issues. The IoT device market is expected to exceed $1.3 trillion by 2026 and the space industries are expected to be a $1 trillion market by 2030 and perhaps $3 trillion by 2040. To put this in perspective, the global auto market ( the largest manufacturing sector in the world) is expected to grow to $9 trillion by 2030 — with 38% of the market being new car sales, undoubtedly with many autonomous features and connectivity demands.

Stifling regulation or poor liability regimes could hamper the growth of both the IoT and space industries. Forty percent of companies use IoT now; that number will double in the next 5 years. Industry 4.0 and IoT relies on the space industry and that’s why regulation of the space industries must become a concern to nearly all industries.

Low-cost access to space to launch and replace the necessary satellites is critical. Launch regulation and liability regimes impact the ability of innovators to continue to reduce the cost of access to space. Remote sensing satellites add to the Big Data collected with each Earth observation. Licensing of such systems, until recently at least, was under stress due to significant delays and concerns over the appropriate benefit-cost analysis being applied to various types of satellites and their imaging capabilities.

Spectrum allocations (as well as continued opening of new bands and sharing of existing bands) are also crucial. Spectrum is the lifeblood of a satellite; a satellite that cannot communicate is valueless. An appropriate balance of spectrum allocations and opportunity between satellite and terrestrial 5G must be achieved as both will be needed for IoT and the Big Data economy to flourish.

Space industry regulation deserves further reform and updating to allow the industry and the broader Industry 4.0 to flourish. U.S. liability regimes that provide certainty to space launch companies and their contractors and customers will expire in roughly four years and will need renewal. The U.S. launch licensing regime has recently undergone streamlining but the launch industry awaits clarifying “advisory circulars” that lay out certain ways to meet technical criteria in the regulations.

True streamlining and certain and timely regulatory processes are important for innovative launch companies from SpaceX and Blue Origin to Relativity Space and many other small and medium sized launch companies.

Remote sensing licensing regime regulatory reform efforts led to new regulations in the past year allowing lower-risk systems to take a speedier path to a license. However, worries exist that outdated benefit-cost analysis within the interagency process will lead to a more restrictive implementation of the new rule over time.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to work it’s way through terrestrial 5G needs for new spectrum as well as satellite spectrum demand. Reform of the whole spectrum management system in the United States — divided between FCC (private sector and state/local government spectrum) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) (federal government spectrum authority) — is on the table if an industry advisory committee has any say. That industry advisory committee has also made recommendations to improve the interagency MOU that exists between the FCC and NTIA to reduce conflicts in spectrum policy and ensure that the full importance to the national economy is taken into account during decision-making.

Additionally, creating a certain and minimally burdensome licensing regime for new on-orbit activities, such as on-orbit satellite servicing, active debris removal, and on-orbit laboratories and factories, awaits. Congressional efforts to lay out rules and assign an agency responsibility for that existing regulatory gap have not succeeded the past couple of years.

Further updates to and monitoring of space debris mitigation guidelines and regulations at both the national and international levels to improve space sustainability also await.

Common issues to Industry 4.0 and the space industry, such as cybersecurity and privacy, are issues needing further thought at both the domestic and international levels. The same is true for export controls, especially as novel products and services are created. In short, space and space regulation matter to Industry 4.0, especially the IoT and Big Data economy. No surprise the new space economy is being labeled Space 4.0. Space is a market multiplier and a customer for Industry 4.0 but it can only play that full role with minimally burdensome regulations and stable liability regimes that incentivize continued innovation and investment in the space sector.

Matthew Schaefer is the founding co-director of the Space, Cyber and Telecom Law program at the University of Nebraska College of Law. He is also the Veronica Haggart & Charles Work Professor of International Trade Law.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.