Low-cost “nanosats” and reusable launchers are remaking the satellite business, making everything from remote monitoring of crops to broadband access to remote villages cheaper and more accessible.
But all these changes pale beside the new services, business models and markets made possible by adding blockchain technology to the mix. By providing low cost, assured trust in the integrity of data and transactions, blockchains can make it dramatically easier to trust, own, share and sell services from this exploding new sensing and communication infrastructure.
This confluence of new technologies could create a sharing economy in space that allows the “other seven billion” residents of Earth who are not employed by large corporations or government to access a “digital twin” of Earth to create a more humane and just world.
But complex technical, legal, political and regulatory challenges stand in the way. So does the need to overcome the suspicions of those who feel left behind by lofty political and technical initiatives proposed by technical “elites.” A substantial and active portion of the citizenry will likely look askance at ever more satellites tracking their movements or property and sharing that information in unknown and possibly sinister ways.
How governments and business manage questions such as security, privacy and ownership will determine whether a sharing economy in space enables more just, equitable and sustainable societies or fuels ever more paralyzing levels of suspicion, division and resentment.
The Democratization of Space
Over the last 30 years, the explosion in inexpensive computing devices and the creation of the internet created the foundation for today’s digital economy. A similar infrastructure for the sharing economy in space is being created before our eyes.
The first and most obvious driver is the dramatic and ongoing reductions in the cost to launch satellites into orbit by private start-ups. The most prominent example is SpaceX, which has successfully landed boosters back on earth and completed the first-ever launch of such reusable boosters in March 2017.
The second advance is the development of “nano sats” that are dramatically smaller, lighter, and thus easier and less expensive to launch than those typically used by governments or industry. In February 2017 India’s space agency put a record 104 of such small satellites into orbit from a single rocket, 88 of which weighed only ten pounds and belong to a private firm that sells data to governments and companies.
The third advance is the evolution of new services in space such as space robotics. Remote controlled or self-supervisedspace robots for 3D printing, mining, resource supplies or scientific missions are making space cheaper and much more accessible for us.
Another new service is Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), an application built upon Heisenberg’s, Planck’s and Feynman’s principles of quantum physics for secure distribution of very long (shared) encryption keys. This service will make communication between two parties (Alice and Bob) on Earth more secure and even unbreakable for NSA, GCHQ or cryptographic intelligence shops in Moscow, Tehran or Peking.
China launched the first quantum-enabled satellite in 2016 to test the QKD technology that could one day protect privacy on Earth.
The QKD technology might give us back our individual freedom “Because privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect. That’s who you are,” Edward Snowden says. “Privacy is baked into our language, our core concepts of government and self in every way. It’s why we call it ‘private property.’ Without privacy you don’t have anything for yourself.” He believes privacy is in fact the “fountainhead” of rights from which “other freedoms” flow.
Building Space-based Monitoring and Communication Services
Taking a cue from the PC industry, many of these nanosats are built based on commonly available standards and from commercial off-the-shelf parts, turning satellite manufacturing from a “one-off” craftsman model to a factory model. Some builders cut costs even further by using components designed for very different uses, such as “IMUs [inertial measurement units] from video games, radio components from cell phones, processors meant for automobiles and medical devices, reaction wheels meant for dental tools, cameras intended for professional photography and the movies,” says Peter Wegner, former director of engineering at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
“Software defined” components in satellites that can be reconfigured remotely, “App Stores” in space, and the easier development of custom sensors are further reducing the cost and time required to provide new space-based services. The increasing intelligence of satellites and the communication capabilities available among them will allow them to work in autonomous “swarms,” sending work to the satellite that can do it most efficiently or compensating for inoperative satellites.
All these advances mean more and more sensing (connectivity and physical services) capability in space with continual increases in image resolution and the area satellites can cover at lower cost across a broader electromagnetic spectrum. Much as the Internet and mobile computing paved the way for the global sharing of skills and services, the falling barriers to space access are creating global space-related supply chains and skill sets.
Figure 1: From Satellite Swarms to Mother Earth’s 24x7 HD Digital Twin
Now, Add Blockchain Technology
More distributed, intelligent and lower-cost space-based sensing and communications is a potentially powerful combination. But it could generate a flood of chaotic, unreliable data, and be too expensive for individuals or civic groups to access, without a low-cost mechanism to assure the integrity of data and transactions.
Community or civic organizations must know the sensing data they receive is reliable and that their ownership stake in a satellite (or the data or communications it provides) is secure, and they are receiving the proper payment or services in kind. If a hedge fund manager is to make a multi-million dollar bet on future oil prices, they need to be sure the satellite imagery of oil tanker movements on which they’re relying haven’t been tampered with.
If an NGO is to mount an effective public campaign for climate change action, disaster relief or against a repressive regime, it must be able to prove the images it displays have not been altered. Such trust is especially important, and lacking, when “fake news” makes it difficult for citizens to even agree on a common set of facts, much less what to do about them.
Blockchain-enabled “smart contracts” or formally verified code in “Trusted Execution Environments” can also allow satellites and systems that need their services to autonomously negotiate and complete transactions based on pre-set criteria such as the price a customer is willing to pay for a certain image or data set and how quickly they need it.
Users, satellite owners and even the satellites themselves could dynamically generate new services (such as supply chains in space) and even pay for their launching, insurance and other costs by selling those services. The resulting sharing economy in space can be thought of as an orbiting analogy to proposed FAVES (Fleets of Autonomous Vehicles, Electric and Shared) that pay for themselves through the services they offer while providing social benefits ranging from fewer accidents to reduced air pollution.
But realizing these benefits requires understanding the full implications of, as well as the hurdles to, this new economic and social model.
A Sharing Economy in Space
A sharing economy in space means the distributed ownership of space assets and the data and communication services they produce. In this economy, satellites and their “products” would not only be owned by for-profit entities and governments, but by non-profit community groups, NGOs and individuals, or even be “self-owned” by the assets themselves.
This new economic model could provide much more accessible, faster and lower cost remote sensor data, as well as low-cost universal broadband communications for previously underserved areas and remote machines: A space-based, shared infrastructure connecting physical, digital and biological spheres for the 4th industrial revolution on a truly global scale.
The increased amount and variety of remote sensing data could enable the creation of an immutable, trusted “digital twin” of Earth, a virtual representation of the real-time status of the global economy and ecosystem, accessible by and affordable to almost everyone.
These capabilities could be used for everything from increasing business efficiency to reducing pollution and crime and empowering local and non-profit organizations to protect the Earth, or their local communities, with real-time data about environmental or other conditions.
Along with protecting the data satellites created and the transactions governing their creation and use, blockchain technology creates the potential for many granular, decentralized markets for the rental, lending and sharing of satellites.
Such access to satellite services (and even to specific monitoring times or orbital positions) could be tokenized and offered on a global market, again with some transactions potentially negotiated by the satellites themselves through smart contracts.
Among the potential economic and social benefits are:
- Improved tracking of transit, weather and traffic conditions that can delay shipments, allowing shippers to more efficiently redirect cargoes and reduce spoilage of perishable goods.
- More accurate economic tracking, analyzing and forecasting, such as tracking the number of cars at shopping centers as indicators of consumer confidence at any given time, or the location of oil tankers and rail cars (or emissions from factories) compared to using data from biased or incomplete sources.
- Tracking of water levels, soil and crop conditions, to optimize use of fertilizer and planting times and to determine the best times to buy and sell and what prices to charge for agricultural products.
- Real time alerts of natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies to more efficiently coordinate rescue and aid efforts.
- Tracking of and enforcement against illegal logging, fishing, poaching and burning of woodlands.
- Tracking of and enforcement against illegal migration.
- Advance notice of production, demand or transportation trends that could allow hedge fund managers to place better bets on coming price changes. In a hyper-local variation on this theme, farmers could use satellite sensor data to hedge local risks such as weather among local business partners.
- Blockchain combined with space-based broadband access to make it easier for suppliers or remote autonomous machines in geographies with weak banking, communication or legal infrastructures to participate in global markets.
- Tracking data for better management of infrastructure maintenance.
- Crowd funded scientific research to advance education, such as orbiting telescopes on which observing time and resulting data would be available to a wide range of researchers.
Empowering Underserved Communities
Across the developed world, communities that have been left behind by globalization are loudly and effectively resisting economic, social and technological trends they feel undermine local sovereignty, force change from above or rob them of power and choice. It’s easy to see how idealistic visions of a sharing economy in space could spur fears of unseen, multinational institutions and spying on local communities, selling the resulting data to the highest bidder or using it to enforce “one world” government or regulations on unsuspecting populations.
To prevent such fears from blocking the benefits of wider access to space-based services, government and business leaders must sincerely and proactively take into account the legitimate fears and concerns of every portion of society. They must also proactively and aggressively identify, develop and promote uses of the sharing economy in space that help everyone regardless of where they live, their social class, political orientation or level of formal education.
- The massive reduction in costs will allow bottom-up or communal models of connectivity and Earth observation that can flourish outside of state or corporate control. Such local groups can run an ‘Initial Coin Offering’ (ICO) campaign utilizing blockchains to securely raise and manage the funds to launch their own satellite service. This enables, for example, Low-cost, high bandwidth internet access to remote areas to help them compete in a global economy, reducing the gap between them and more “elite” urban areas.
- Faster access to climate, market and pricing trends to allow farmers in even remote areas to make better decisions about when to plant, when to harvest, and when to sell their goods — and at what prices. Farmers in Australia, for example, must currently wait 24 hours to get the same satellite data as their counterparts in the U.S. Faster access to such data could give them more leverage in negotiations and increase their profit margins.
Those most concerned about the role of central governments, such as the libertarian community, could use the bitcoin or ether digital currency to fund a satellite constellation providing parallel financial, communication or data services for emerging markets and physical transactions in space including future space colonies.
Earth, Own Thyself?
Ideally, this “digital twin” — the sum total of all real-time data about everything from endangered biospheres to animal migrations and air pollution — can be analyzed by artificial intelligence algorithms to identify threats to the integrity of the Earth and trigger countermeasures.
Taking on a major job like protecting the planet raises the question of who owns the data about the planet and, even more fundamentally, who owns the planet itself. Is it owned by a few rich humans, democratically by all humans, or perhaps — facilitated by a space-based sharing economy and security mechanisms such as blockchains — might the planet own itself, and exercise its vested interest in protecting all the living organisms on it?
In such a model, a self-owned digital twin “comprising all the real time data about the physical world” or even a decentralized autonomous organization guided by artificial intelligence could sell data about itself and use the proceeds to maintain the space infrastructure and pay for measures to protect the Earth’s environment. New Zealand is already experimenting with this concept, giving a former national park the status of a person, allowing (among other things) lawsuits to protect the land without having to show harm to any person.
We believe in the transformational potential of the sharing economy in space, and that some version of it will emerge, and perhaps sooner than we think. That does not mean, however, that its success is inevitable or that its benefits will be equitably shared.
Among the challenges to be met are protecting the privacy of those who do not want their personal or commercial activities tracked, and to prevent the misuse of that information without their permission. This may require the option of “opting out” of (blockchain) databases such as land use registries, using blockchains to assure citizens their records have indeed been purged or not stored in the commonly accessible digital twin. Another is tracking, controlling and decommissioning nanosatellites to prevent their posing a threat to other satellites or those on the ground when they leave orbit and their use for criminal or terrorist purposes.
Still others are creating practical, workable management and regulation of markets for either services or data, and developing and proving the security capabilities of blockchains. This includes common, agreed standards for its use and for resolution of disputes and recovery of losses in case blockchain security is breached.
With these challenges in mind, government and business leaders should begin detailed discussions now about:
- How to regulate this infrastructure to prevent its misuse by governments, businesses, criminals and/or terrorists without stifling innovation.
- When and how to eliminate current barriers to nanosat deployment such as high license fees and other funding/capital requirements and requiring operator provide indemnity against damages beyond that provided by launch partner.
- What types of funding (crowd funding, private investment, government subsidies) to allow or encourage for various activities in the sharing economy in space.
- Who should own the data, and the resulting analyses, and how to balance private ownership of data one group has paid for against its value to the public.
- How to avoid the “pollution” of space with inoperative or failed satellites.
- Whether and how this data, services and transactions should be taxed and which tax authority should receive the tax.
- Whether and how to prevent simple but effective counters to space-based observation, such as tankers loaded with ballast, not oil, riding low in the water and appearing to but not actually offloading oil. What is the balance between legitimate commercial privacy and public good?
- How to hard code rules for the “Super Intelligence” that protects the planet to adhere to ethical standards.
Building the Future Now
This convergence of technologies and trends, from falling costs for space-based communications and sensor data to blockchain-enabled smart contracts, creates an internet-like standard, scalable and low-cost platform on which innovators can build radically new businesses and social models.
However, spreading the benefits beyond the traditional capitalist stakeholders to the benefit of the wider society will require close attention to complex technical, legal, security, ownership, privacy and equity issues.
Given the speed with which these technologies are maturing, government and business leaders should start addressing these issues before the inevitable unexpected consequences delay the potentially game-changing benefits of a shared economy in space.
Ready to engage on Sharing Economy in Space or build a democratic Digital Twin of our planet Earth? Get in touch.
This guest post by Carsten Stoecker originally appeared on his Medium blog.