AI firm Group 42 eyes intergalactic opportunities

Space traffic management systems and autonomous robots are both areas of opportunity, a G42 executive says

Abu Dhabi's artificial intelligence firm Group 42 is looking to tap into the space sector for new commercial opportunities, according to a senior executive.

"Our mission is to help the UAE deliver on its AI agenda ... and it’s obvious that space is a natural use case for AI," said Talal Al Kaissi, who left the UAE Space Agency to join G42 earlier this month to oversee its new space programme.

With an emerging market for commercial space travel, Mr Al Kaissi said there are opportunities to develop space traffic management systems. He also sees potential in robotics and autonomous mining on extraterrestrial land, which can be done remotely or autonomously to reduce human error or risk.

Morgan Stanley estimates that commercial opportunities in space will be worth an estimated $1 trillion by 2040.

The UAE, a relative newcomer to space exploration and development, has ambitious plans for the coming decade. With the Hope probe underway to Mars, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid announced the Emirati Lunar Mission this week.

The Emirati-made lunar explorer will land on the surface of the Moon in 2024 in areas not reached by previous human exploration missions to capture images and data.

These undertakings are critical, particularly coming from the government during a difficult year for so many around the world, Mr Al Kaissi said during the Global Aerospace Summit.

“We’re in the business of manufacturing hope and inspiration,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to quantify that return, but it’s easy to see tangible results in terms of the value in inspiring people. At this time you need a lot more of that. It’s time to double down on investments in space.”

Developing AI systems to better understand the features of space and extraterrestrial destinations, as well as autonomous robotics would be "low hanging fruit" for the firm to start out with, but the company's plans are still under development, he said.

G42 has spent much of the year focusing on addressing needs during the pandemic.

The firm's supercomputer Artemis is being made available to researchers working to stem the virus and its subsidiary G42 Healthcare is involved in the vaccine trial with China's Sinopharm, developing faster Covid-19 tests.

It's time to double down on investments in space.

Increasing investment in space has also led to another major challenge of space debris – an area in which many companies see potential.

George Whitesides, the chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said that there was an opportunity to address space debris as a result of growing amount of traffic in orbit.

The next few years will see the addition of 1,000-unit constellations of satellites to Low Earth orbit as well as a greater number of vehicles headed into space.

"These will bring a lot of new benefits and capabilities to Earth but we need to make sure we have the right processes and regulations in place for sustainable space development," Mr Whitesides said, speaking from the Global Aerospace Summit.

He commended the UAE for developing a policy framework at the same time as it was getting its space programme underway.

"We've made no secret of potentially doing something in Al Ain," he said, referencing a 2019 preliminary agreement with the UAE Space Agency to put a launch location for its commercial space shuttles in the emirate.

"We’re looking for markets where people are excited to fly from," he said. "What an exciting time we live in."