Aerospace Summit takes off 🚀

Aotearoa, NZ’s inaugural Aerospace Summit kicked off to an enthusiastic reception at Te Pae ki Ōtautahi, the new Convention Centre in Christchurch. With Christchurch featuring as one of five Antarctic Gateway cities globally, it seems appropriate to reimagine ourselves as a city of opportunities supporting Aerospace and FutureTransport initiatives.

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Kea Aerospace founder Mark Rocket laid the foundation to this Summit by launching the monthly Christchurch Aerospace Meetups back in 2018 and I’ve been a regular attendee; I started learning to fly about then and have a keen interest in what I might be sharing my airspace with. Indeed, flying out of NZRT at Rangiora I’m sharing my airspace with Skybase’s SOFI prototype, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest drone.

The following year the Canterbury region’s Aerospace Sector Plan was released witht the Meetup team evolving into an organising Committee. The region has a strong whakapapa of navigators and innovators as evidenced by  Project Tāwhaki combining Mātauranga Māori with science at Kaitōrete Spit for advanced aviation and aerospace. I’ve posted previously about the joint venture partnership here between the Government and two local rūnanga, Te Taumutu Rūnanga and Warewa Rūnanga. This year, the Committee have a national focus with the goal of “building an Aerospace Nation.”

At the Summit the Government announced funding to support Aerospace initiatives, opened public consultation on developing an Aerospace Strategy (link here) and the New Zealand Space Policy Review (link here).  Funding announced included $9m for research partnerships with NASA, $3m for research projects under the Airspace Integration Trials Programme and $3.7m for the CAA to establish an Emerging Technologies Programme.  

Hypersonic at Mach 25 

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Astronaut Pamela Melroy has re-entered the earth’s atmosphere at Mach 25, making her the hypersonic keynote speaker. The space sector and aviation is of strategic significance for all nations, and international agreements can make collaboration easier. From the regular flying telescope SOFIA deployments through to the CAPSTONE collaboration with NZ’s RocketLab and the signing of the Artemis Accord last year, NZ is viewed as a key strategic partner for the US. A combination of science capabilities plus launch capabilities enables NZ to have an impact, including on climate change. Around 70-80 percent of climate change data comes from space; we need to work globally to share climate data and collaborate on solutions. 

This was a good segueway into Peter Beck’s keynote presentation inspired by early critics of his vision for RocketLab back in 2006. “The problem you will have, Peter, is that New Zealand will never do space” he was told. Yeah right. Around 1,700 rockets have been launched from Launch Complex One at Mahia Peninsula to date, and in June RocketLab launched a CubeSat to the Moon – the CAPSTONE pathfinding mission to support the first stage of NASA’s Artemis program.

Mahia Peninsula is one of the busiest launch sites in the world – launching satellites for connectivity, for earth monitoring. From pizza ordering to Tinder matching, we’re having an impact daily on billions of people.” Peter Beck. 

Access to Space

Stefan Powell (Dawn Aerospace) and Anna Kominik (formerly Wisk Aero) joined the ‘Access to Space’ panel alongside Malcolm Snowdon (Argo Nevis) and Morgan Bailey (RocketLab). There’s been an explosion in demand for space-based services. How do we get access to the space economy? By ensuring that Advisory and Policy Frameworks are in place – and by ensuring that earthly conflicts don’t expand to the space environment. 

NZ ranks as number one for the ease of doing business, including for engine testing and for flight testing. “The overall environment is fantastic, including the Space Agency. The willingness of the agencies to take on the innovativeness of these challenges enables us to come up with new ways of accessing space – for example, the aircraft space tech that Dawn Aerospace is using” stated Stefan Powell. However, there’s a way to go. “Our sweet spot is high altitude and space…our Advanced Aviation initiatives lag behind the rest of the world. Where are the CAA regulatory milestones?” asked Anna Kominik. 

This was answered, in some part, in the later Policy Panel discussion.  How can researchers, scientists and startup founders navigate emerging technologies within advanced aviation? Engagement is the key – and engage early. “We are continuously pleased with the variety of technology developments coming through. We have the opportunity to be an international Space Policy leader”, stated MBIE’s Andrew Johnson. “Regulation needs to be fit for purpose to minimise risk…through innovation is how NZ maximises gains.”  CAA Director Keith Manch reiterated that CAA is the ‘face’ of the regulation, and discussed the success of Tekapo (such as the autonomous air taxi trials with Wisk Aero).  “With the Emerging Technologies Framework the CAA is taking a systems approach to Certification, with the bottom line of safety,” he said.

Regulatory quote of the day went to Shaun Johnson (Merlin Labs). “Death, taxes and…Certification. These are the certainties of life” 

Diversity panel

“Diversity is beneficial to innovation; it’s not difficult and it’s not rocket science” stated Aerospace Engineer Dr Priyanka Dhopade. Led by Tāwhaki Joint Venture’s Kate Breach, the Diversity Panel included Dr Sarah Kessans (UC), Jessica Tucker (Beca) and Sarah Blyde (RocketLab) with constructive suggestions from their own experience as to how the space sector might take action to improve diversity measures. 

The Summit itself took an inclusive approach, with plenty of creative acts throughout the day inserting the A into STEM.

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$10B was invested globally into aerospace sector startups last year – while VC (Venture Capital) money is not for everyone it can be good for velocity, and for building sophisticated companies. Mitali Purohit (Nuance Connected Capital) led the deep tech ‘Access to Aerospace Capital’ panel with Imche Fourie, (Outset Ventures), Niamh Given (WNT Ventures), Fi Foster (Movac), Kate de Ridder (Bridgewest Ventures) and Ashwath Sundaresan (Pacific Channel). 

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There are plenty of early stage investments into this sector, including Nuance Connected Capital and GD1’s recent investment of $10.5m into Zenno Astronautics satellite control and propulsion systems company.

Key attributes that investors look for include defensibility (IP, patentability, access to unique datasets or some other form of protectability), business model, speed to market and unique people on your team. It’s important to start building those investor relationships early.

Creating an Aerospace Nation

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Not only did the exhibitors manage to get Wisk Aero’s autonomous taxi up the stairs, it was also great to see Dawn Aerospace’s suborbital spaceplane test vehicle and Pyper Vision’s fog-dispersal drone. For a virtual tour of all the Summit exhibitors, check out Jix’s virtual exhibitor booths here

Canterbury’s initial Aerospace Sector strategy back in 2019 brought everyone in the industry together, and Mark Rocket’s call to action is for the Government to get the national strategy out.

Get involved! Once again, links for the Aerospace Strategy (here) and/or the New Zealand Space Policy Review (here).