From Rocks to Rockets

Interview with Alicia Bird, Mining Extraordinaire at the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications.

This week, AeroSpace Cornwall (virtually) met up with Alicia Bird, from the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications. Currently working with the University of Exeter, she helps to connect mining businesses into the space tech industry and helps space tech businesses move into mining.  As our role is to offer funding to businesses who are looking to bridge the gap from mining into the space world, we thought it was time to interrogate her! The perception is that space and mining have no connection, however it's worth reading on.  If you're a business looking to make the jump into the space sector, Alicia explains how it's done. 

AeroSpace Cornwall: What's your role at the South West Centre of Excellence? 

Alicia Bird: I'm the Mining Lead at the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (part of The Satellite applications Catapult), helping to connect mining companies to space tech and help space tech companies get into the mining field. 

AC: What are your priorities at the moment?

AB: At present I am mostly trying to raise awareness for what the satellite capabilities are in mining and geoscience applications. I want to show the industry what space tech has to offer and hopefully drive them to engage with some of the great support and business networks that exist in space. We can help businesses discover what is possible through satellite applications, help them access the data and services they might need or want, and in many cases we can help manage projects and gain funding to innovate in the mining industry using space technology. My job is to get in front of those people and let them know we, the Satellite Applications Catapult, are here, and that we can help from answering questions and brainstorming, all the way to supporting any bids for space agency funding for new projects. 

AC: What's your average day like? 

AB: No two days are the same really. I plan (virtual) events, run (online) workshops, support existing projects, and keep my eyes peeled for opportunities for mining/geoscience companies in my network. At the minute, working from home, I am doing a lot of Zoom calling as I’m sure we all are, but once the pandemic is over I hope to be running a lot more in person events and attending conferences to meet people in real life. 

AC: What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on?

AB:  All of the projects I work on are pretty exciting! We work with a wide variety of companies from space tech companies to international mining companies to start-ups. We have recently put in a bid for some funding, partnered with a UK mining company to for an exploration project using remote sensing and Earth observation techniques to generate new targets, so there has been a lot of focus on that this summer and we have our fingers crossed that we gain the funding and the project can start.

AC: What are you looking to achieve in the next year?

AB: I want to help more local Cornwall based companies engage with space tech. Satellite technology has a lot to offer in the mining field and those that perhaps have never considered space tech might be missing out on great innovation opportunities. I would love to help more companies here find funding through using space tech, and to help connect space tech and geoscience companies to one another to create new projects. 

AC: What’s the most exciting thing happening in Cornwall in the next 12 months? 

AB: There are a lot of projects and companies down here in the mining world that we should all keep an eye on: South Crofty, The Redmoor Project, Cornish Lithium, British Lithium, all the geothermal projects and across the Tamar we have Tungsten West re-opening Hemerdon. There’s a lot to look forward to, and some of these companies have already started to engage with space tech and have found great results through said projects. On top of that there are many space initiatives here too! Exobotics, a start-up business making lunar rovers, have benefitted from AeroSpace Cornwall funding and have recently set up a base in Penryn, south west Cornwall. Spaceport Cornwall is due to launch its pathfinder horizontal launch mission in 2022. And you have the South West Centre of Excellence, with its various theme leads (mining, marine, health care) here to drive industry specific uptake of space tech, but also Aerospace Cornwall who have great opportunities such as funding and support also available for those who want to innovate in the space tech arena in Cornwall. There’s a lot to keep up with, and it’s only just begun!

AC: Space and mining or space and extreme environments sectors are considered at the polar ends of the spectrum. Some of our businesses will be thinking there is no link between space and mining.  What can you tell them that would make them think otherwise? 

AB: It might seem like mining, drilling deeper into the Earth, and space, launching away from it, might be opposites, and perhaps they are, but mining is one of the most important industries to satellite companies. Satellites have birds-eye view of the whole Earth and mining and geoscience can of course benefit from that perspective! As we continue to need more materials, and rarer and rarer minerals and metals, we are driven to explore areas that were previously out of bounds. But now, thanks to earth observation techniques, there is less need to send exploration geologists into remote, harsh or dangerous territories just to look for rock outcrops, now they can do it from the safety of a desk top using satellite data. It also means that companies and geologists can cover much larger swathes of land than even a large team of workers could cover, which is time and cost efficient. And there are other technologies such as InSAR which can monitor ground movement helping to prevent landslides and other geotechnical disasters. The list goes on, there are countless ways that sat data can be used and many ways to apply it to geoscience and mining. 

AC: How did you get into your role? 

AB: My background is in geology, I studied BSc Engineering Geology and MSc Exploration Geology at Camborne School of Mines at the University of Exeter. The school of mines gave me a good understanding of the mining industry and the way it operates, and then working on a few Cornish mining projects including South Crofty and the Redmoor Project, as well as working as a researcher at Camborne School of Mines itself, gave me a well-rounded understanding of how Cornwall in particular was developing its mining industry and culture. When this job role came up I was immediately interested as I had enjoyed the remote sensing module I had done on my master’s degree, so I applied. Now, having never worked in space tech before, I get to talk to space agencies, aerospace engineers and earth observation specialists while continuing to work in the Cornish mining scene. 

AC: How does your specialist training help you in your role? 

AB: ​Being a geologist with a good know how about mining helps me engage the mining industry in space tech as I now speak both languages. The mining companies who might not know what is possible with satellite applications can talk to me as they would any other geologist, and then I can pass on the space tech knowledge and expertise that I have learned since starting this role through the catapult itself. Most of my team at the catapult are not geologists, so it’s great to feel like I bring that background knowledge to the party, but being able to relay the space tech side to my mining colleagues in Cornwall and beyond puts their minds at ease knowing that I know where they are coming from as miners/geoscientists working in the field. 

AC: And finally… what do you love most about Cornwall? 

AB: The scenery and landscape is obviously beautiful. Always being near the sea brings a state of mind that I don’t think you can achieve in land locked counties, trust me I’m originally from Berkshire! The people and way of life here is so different. People really care about their business and their work here because it isn’t abundant and things aren’t as easy here as they maybe would be in a big city like London where opportunities, people and technology are plenty. You have to have perseverance and a resilience to make it in Cornwall, which is why Cornish people are the way that they are, and why they care so much about what they do. Whether it’s mining or space tech, or running a café or tourist destination, heart and soul goes into everything here. It’s a small world down here, so you will only find people with good character.

We're hoping that Alicia has convinced you that it's possible to pivot into the space industry if you're working in mining or extreme environments. To find out more about the funding we have on offer, Introduce Yourself

Find out more about the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications.