An interview with Steinbeis Entrepreneur and aerospace expert Professor Dr.-Ing. Felix Huber
Space travel is a topic of global interest, which is precisely why it relies on networks. TRANSFER magazine talked to Professor Dr.-Ing. Felix Huber, Steinbeis Entrepreneur at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Aerospace, about how collaboration works within networks, how networks have changed over the years, and the benefits they offer.
Hello Professor Huber. Your Steinbeis company deals with the application of insights gathered from space flight for small and medium-sized enterprises. You also work on research and development projects in this area. How important to your day-to-day business are knowledge-sharing networks in the field of aerospace?
Since “direct” space travel is a relatively small sector of industry, and it’s shaped by very particular requirements involving interdisciplinary tasks, in this field knowledge networks are crucial. Space travel always operates at the extreme of what’s technically feasible, because energy and payload mass are extremely limited in space. So when contracts are awarded, from the very outset it’s important who possesses or is in a position to develop the best technology. This is often the point where collaboration kicks off, not least because the European Space Agency (ESA) follows the principle of geo-return: Every country that’s an ESA member is awarded contacts proportional to the financial contributions it pays. This can be useful, but sometimes it’s also an obstacle – for example, if the geo-return principle requires a country has to take on a task but it lacks expertise within the domestic industry.
Lots of technologies were spawned by space travel – LEDs, sunglasses, cordless screwdrivers. Where would you place the concept of innovation networks within the sometimes conflicting area between aerospace research and industry?
Once upon a time, aerospace was the innovation network par excellence, for the simple reason that the technology that was needed didn’t exist yet and it had to be developed. It meant there was a huge spin-off from aerospace into other areas. In the meantime, many technologies have become an established part of aerospace and people have become cautious, not to say conservative – new technologies are a technical and financial risk, and especially if large corporations have paying customers they’re unwilling to take that risk. That also has something to do with the secondary and tertiary links in the chain of the economy, for example TV satellites. Manufacturers sell their hardware just one time, whereas the operators provide a service in the long term, yet most of the added value comes from selling TVs and set-top boxes. And you don’t want to jeopardize the chain. So these days, there tends to be a spin-on into aerospace: Startups are taking commercial, off-the-shelf hardware into space and demonstrating that that’s also possible. The reliability then comes along in the second step.
You’re the full-time director of Space Operations and Astronaut Training at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). What form does the networking concept have in your work there?
Networks are crucial when you’re working with satellites – for technical, scientific, and financial reasons. The very nature of satellites is that they’re global – you don’t get far if you’re a lone wolf; you have to work in networks with other experts. This creates an opportunity to offer the expensive ground stations with others and share your knowledge, for example, about on-board technologies. There’s a reason why they say aerospace connects people.
What form of collaboration is there between the Steinbeis Network and the German Aerospace Center?
There are three ways to collaborate. On the one hand, there’s the German Space Agency, which used to be called Space Adminstration and is part of the German Aerospace Center. It’s an important partner when it comes to funding projects. Steinbeis provides advice on funding and facilitates knowledge and technology transfer to allow technology developed at universities to become products, such as flight hardware. Then there are direct forms of cooperation between the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Aerospace and institutes of the German Aerospace Center, for example in the field of navigation or communication. And the third option is for the spacecraft operations area of the German Aerospace Center to work together with Steinbeis Enterprises. Space travel also has an ongoing need for state-of-the-art technology on the ground, and working together makes it possible to develop solutions that are cost-effective and efficient.