An unlikely sector of the Northern Ireland economy is taking shape. Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster has launched an innovative strategy to secure the future prosperity of the Northern Ireland aerospace, defence, security and space sectors. Yes, you read it correctly. Northern Ireland has a space sector.
This strategy has been heralded as an important step towards making sure that we stay ahead of the curve in these high-value sectors. They account for 20% of our exports.
The development of the strategy has been led by the council of ADS Northern Ireland, the aerospace, defence, security and space trade organisation, in close collaboration with Invest Northern Ireland, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department for Employment and Learning.
Leslie Orr, manager, ADS NI, said: "Our document entitled 'Northern Ireland Partnering for Growth' outlines plans to more than double revenues from these sectors to over £2bn per year. In doing so, it is hoped that we will increase direct employment from 8,000 to 12,000 in the next decade."
UK aerospace currently has a 17% global market share, making it the number-one aerospace industry in Europe and globally second only to the United States. The sector creates annual UK revenues of over £24bn. Northern Ireland contributes around £900m to this total and therefore, in scale, is one of the top aerospace regions. The UK space sector is growing at a rate of almost 7.5% each year.
At the 2012 Farnborough Air show, US-owned Aerojet Rocketdyne, together with Thales, announced the launch of the European Space Propulsion company, to be based in Belfast. Designing and manufacturing space thrust rocket motors, this promises to be a nucleus for the growth of a hub for the space industry in the region.
Michael Ryan, vice-president and general manager, Bombardier Aerospace, Belfast, spoke at the launch of the strategy: "Northern Ireland has a strong engineering base and this strategy -- in tandem with the UK civil Aerospace Industrial Strategy -- will help us to build on this. By developing skills, improving competitiveness and increasing investment in R&D (research and development), I believe our local aerospace, defence, space and security sectors can meet the challenges from global competitors, expand our markets, boost sales, and ultimately deliver wide-reaching economic benefits for the whole of Northern Ireland."
Robert Hill, director, Northern Ireland Space Office, is at the forefront of growing this important sector in the local economy.
He feels that now is the right time to implement a strategy of this nature: "The UK government has set ambitious targets to increase our input into the space community. It is opening up opportunities for companies to get involved without facing the same level of risk that they once would have.
"We are using space more and more and we are depending on people putting the technology up there, the upstream sector, and then others finding the ways to use that technology back here on earth, for downstream purposes."
Mr Hill also chairs the Northern Ireland Space Special Interest Group (NISSIG) which brings together industry and academia stakeholders that have an interest in developing the space industry.
He continued: "This group has really made Europe sit up and pay attention to what is happening in Northern Ireland. We have already had large-scale companies looking into opportunities to partner with local businesses and Invest NI is really helping to develop the export potential. What we need to see now are new players exploring their options within the space sector. I would be the first point of contact for any new or existing companies hoping to find out what opportunities there are. Funds are available for those who are keen to work in this sector."
Queen's University (QUB) and the University of Ulster (UU) are creating world-class research in the application of space technologies. Professor Stephen Smartt, director, Astrophysics Research Centre, Queen's University Belfast, has noticed a significant increase in the number of applications from students hoping to study space sector modules: "Our applications are up by almost 70%, thanks in part to our own outreach activity and also people like Brian Cox making space more mainstream. With fees increasing, students want to have a definite career path from the point of entry and the space sector is creating these opportunities."
The university forms close connections with local companies that are already producing instruments for use in space, including Andor Technology, bringing together their expertise in technology and science.
Professor Smartt continued: "We have recently submitted a major bid to the Science, Technology and Facility Council to work alongside Andor Technology in order to create a commercially viable product to look at the sun. This industry based proposal would be worth over £1m."
While the Northern Ireland space sector is really only rising to our attention now, it is intended that it will continue to bring benefits to our local economy for many years to come. Maybe even to infinity and beyond.