UAE space sector launches mission to find next Elon Musk with millions in funding

A programme by the UAE Space Agency is helping local entrepreneurs enter a bustling global private sector race

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The UAE is on a hunt to find its own Elon Musk with a new programme that aims to transform space project ideas into business start-ups.

Four teams have been chosen to be part of the UAE NewSpace Innovation Programme, run by the UAE Space Agency and start-up incubator Krypto Labs.

The three-month-long project is worth Dh2million and is currently in the incubation phase, where the teams are connected to mentors, investors, customers and potential partners from space and related fields.

For decades, space activities have been government-run, but private firms are making their mark with ground-breaking technologies and ideas. Recently, billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to launch human spaceflights.

The programme's participants spoke to The National about how they think they could transform the Emirates' space sector.

'Noise-free' satellite sensors

To help improve the quality of satellite performance, Canadian-national Zaid Al Rayyes, 24, has invented sensors that send and receive noise-free signals.

Firms currently use standard sensors in satellites, such as inertial measurement units and microelectromechanical systems, that produce noisy data and is worsened by interference from magnetic disturbances in space. The data is then filtered by engineers on the ground using a software – a method that is costly and time-consuming.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 03 AUGUST 2020. UAE Space Agency investing Dh2m into  Emirati and expat’s space startup firms. Zaid Al Rayyes. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Sarwat Nasir. Section: National.
Zaid Al Rayyes runs a start-up firm that he hopes can break into the space sector. Antonie Robertson / The National

“We are reinventing the sensors used in satellites by combining concepts in chemistry with machine dynamics,” said Mr Al Rayyes, a mechanical engineer.

“We’re aiming to be the UAE’s first producers of satellite sensors and with this achievement the UAE space sector will expand its industrial reach.

“When we think of pioneering companies like SpaceX we automatically think of Elon Musk. Innovation starts with the entrepreneur behind the product, so the next success story in the UAE will also begin with the people creating the technology.”

Cheaper solar panels for spacecrafts

Emirati engineer Hamad Saif Alteneiji, 47, has invented solar panels that he said will cost half the price of existing technology and are easier to develop.

His solar panels generate energy from the sun by using a method called the ‘Light Trapping Dynamic Photovoltaic Module’.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 03 AUGUST 2020. UAE Space Agency investing Dh2m into  Emirati and expat’s space startup firms. Hamad Alteneiji. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Sarwat Nasir. Section: National.
Hamad Alteneiji has developed cost-effective solar panels for spacecraft and satellites. Antonie Robertson / The National 

“The light trapping is achieved by incorporating solar reflector strips within module glasses. Their function is to trap sun light inside photovoltaic module glasses and creates internal light concentration. This leads to reduction on the expensive solar cells quantity up to 50 per cent, hence, reducing the overall cost by up to 40 per cent,” said Mr Alteneiji, who works as a manager at Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority.

Today, solar panels can cost Dh1,000-1,500 per watt. For example, the Hope probe uses 1,800 watts from two solar panels.

The technology has a dynamic response feature, which includes internal cells that protect the solar panels from any internal or external impacts. There is also a passive heat dissipation system that uses metallic solar reflective strips to convert internal waste heat into usable energy – ultimately extending the lifespan of a spacecraft.

“The start-up space industry is becoming an important source of innovation for the government. Governments have an opportunity to leverage emerging start-up space companies to do more while spending less,” he said.

This is ground control to Mars Mission

This is ground control to Mars Mission

Using artificial intelligence for better images

Mustafa Alhashmi launched a start-up, called Smart Navigation Systems, in 2015 that is run by Emirati engineers.

The company is part of Abu Dhabi's Hub71 incentive programme and it has now become part of the UAE NewSpace Innovation project.

Mr Alhashmi said his firm offers remote-sensing services using artificial intelligence.

“Our main products developed locally are based on spatial data, providing applications that serve the local community and are directed to federal and local authorities in general,” he said.

“Regional municipalities, educational and environmental sectors benefit from our services, increasing people's convenience and security.”

He said his remote-sensing technology can offer satellite imagery that can be used by authorities for disaster mitigation planning and recovery, coastal change detection, building permit verification, measuring post Covid-19 impact, among others.

As of now, authorities use images provided by government satellites DubaiSat-1 and 2 and KhalifaSat for such services.

Mini satellites for better urban planning

Another team is offering a group of mini Earth-observation satellites that will continuously gather data on the Middle East and Northern Africa region.

It will use a Synthetic Aperture Radar, a technology that offers a 2 or 3-D version of satellite images. The product is useful for municipalities for urban planning.

CubeSats - micro-satellites the size of a box - are gaining popularity in the UAE, especially among university students, who are building and launching them with the help of the space agency.

The devices are much cheaper than conventional satellites and sit in low orbit.