Airbus Defence and Space: Looking to Mars

8th November 2018
Our team looking at the Mars Rovers at Airbus Defence and Space


Trivia: Stevenage was picked as the site for Airbus Defence and Space to protect its technology in the event of a post-war nuclear attack on London.

On Thursday 11th October, we took our 10 start-ups to Stevenage to spend the day at Airbus Defence and Space. Hosted by our wonderful expert-in-residence Liz Seward, the day was kickstarted by a tour of Airbus’ extensive facilities where we were able to observe the numerous and intricate steps involved in satellite production. It was riveting to see the vast production floors and presumably eye-wateringly expensive bespoke machines used within this process.

Satellite Stats

Whilst on the tour, we learnt quite how ground-breaking Airbus had been in the history of satellite technology. Take the Gaia 3D Satellite (designed by Airbus). Launched in 2013, Gaia has had the unenviable task of scanning the position, distance and motion of more than a billion stars in the Milky Way to draw a 3D map of our galaxy. Boasting more than one billion pixels; it holds the title of being the largest digital camera in space and, according to Airbus, “if it was on the moon, it could measure the thumbnail of a person on the Earth”. Our host Liz also went on to mention the recently launched Aeolus Satellite; its aim to make the first truly global maps of wind behaviour. Since launch, the data brought back from Aeolus has truly surpassed expectations and will have a significant impact on forecasts going forward; providing information at more regular intervals and observations on parts of the globe where data is currently lacking.

‘Bridget, Bruno and Brian’

A considerable highlight came towards the end of the tour when the teams came face to face with three mars rover prototypes focused on looking for biochemical signs of life against the backdrop of a barren Mars landscape; created using 250 tonnes of sand and a series of artificial boulders. Bryan, the most recent prototype, came closest in design to the final ExoMars rover. With a lot less bulk so as to mirror the weight the final rover would display on Mars (where gravity is one third of that on earth), Bryan’s job is to test and refine the rover’s autonomous navigation system (given that the link between Earth and Mars is 40 minutes), allowing it to map the best route so as to avoid hazards and complete its work. Nevertheless, the fact that it covers no more than 70m per day makes a high-speed collision unlikely. Such is the importance of avoiding biological contamination on this mission that the rover is built in a 3-tiered assembly room with varying security clearance and is unable to utilise rubber or any other organic compound in its design.

Introductions and Innovations

Having completed the tour, our start-ups were introduced to some notable Airbus representatives; each hailing from different departments within Airbus Defence and Space so as to accommodate the wide array of applications our start-ups were looking to provide. Following a helpful presentation from Matt Galinet, Commodity Manager at Airbus, on what a ‘lite’ supplier qualification process entails, it was the start-ups turn to pitch to these Airbus executives. Each provided critical feedback and forced several of our cohort to answer difficult questions about what it was they were looking to achieve.

It was encouraging to see Airbus’ energy and dedication towards innovation; highlighted by the extensive 1-on-1 sessions they took with the start-ups following the pitches, looking to explore Proof-of-Concept opportunities. Innovations Coordinator Martin Agnew exemplified Airbus’ focus on real world feasibility by explaining to most of the people he talked to ‘I want one of your products so I can break it’

Our visit to Airbus was both intellectually and commercially stimulating and we would like to thank Liz Seward for being a consummate host and for allowing our start-ups to sow the seeds of commercial opportunities.

As Toby Mills, CEO of Entopy (one of our cohort) stated:

Visiting a pioneering organisation such as Airbus was both exciting and educational. It was a great chance to see some of the organisations Entopy is exposed to and gave a level up in terms of belief and mentality.

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