In 2015, China outlined its Made in China 2025 plan which would make the country a “world manufacturing power” within a decade. The aerospace equipment industry would be a significant factor in this plan to ramp up the country’s production power, as China also wanted to become a leader when it comes to satellite technology. In 2017, the C919 passenger jet—a domestically produced Chinese airplane—also completed its very first long-haul flight, a clear reflection of the sort of breakthroughs that the Made in China 2025 plan aims to promote.

But the development of the country’s aerospace industry—which was worth RMB 341.26 billion in 2015 (equivalent to just over $53 billion) according to Statista—could have more implications than just establishing China as a manufacturing superpower.

This industry, which is “concerned with both aviation and space flight,” according to its definition, could also be used for social good.

Using space for good

The idea that aerospace companies can have a significant impact on the ground is something championed by Zuo “Zee” Zheng, co-founder and CEO of the SpaceChain Foundation (“SpaceChain”). SpaceChain is a space exploration initiative based on human consensus and is made up of a group of diverse team members, including members based in China.

Zheng believes that entities like SpaceChain have a responsibility to consider global implications of their actions.

“One of the most important points is that the space in orbit for satellites is very limited,” explains  Zheng. SpaceChain offers decentralized access to satellite technology in an effort to accelerate space research and exploration.

A 2014 article by The World Bank highlights the uses of satellites; the applications range from helping to manage and regulate sources of contamination, measure water quality, and even preventing disaster and damage caused by floods and landslides.

Natural disasters occur frequently in China, with 83.3 million Chinese people being affected by them in 2016. At a press conference, Pang Chenmin, a representative for the Ministry of Civil Affairs revealed that natural disasters resulted in direct economic losses of $25.2 billion and it has separately been reported that the livelihood of China’s rural farmers has also been negatively affected by natural disasters. It begs the question of whether we could decrease the severity of these losses by harnessing the use of satellites.

Moreover, Zheng reveals that SpaceChain is currently speaking with various partners who are interested in using satellites to detect global air quality and make the process decentralized so everyone can access “unprocessed” data.” China has also ramped up its efforts to tackle air pollution and looks set to achieve its air quality goals by 2035 and the work of SpaceChain’s partners would surely support and possibly benefit these anti-pollution aims.

Improving global air quality is not the most obvious use case of a company that specializes in using the blockchain to get satellites into space, but for people on land in China, it could be one of the most effective.

The economic impact

Satellites could reduce the costs involved with natural disasters, yes, but satellite imagery and data can have even more direct applications in the commercial world. These applications include satellite navigation, satellite-based Internet connectivity, and the aforementioned satellite television. In fact, the annual State of the Satellite Industry report published by the Satellite Industry Association in 2017 revealed that the satellite industry was worth a phenomenal $261 billion in 2016 which represented a 2% growth from 2015 ($255 billion). China is a major player in that and looks poised to disrupt that Europe and the United States has on this industry, according to some reports.

These are economic developments that these LEDCs do not have great access to due to the significant cost, but these are hurdles that a decentralized space agency could help these populations overcome.

For Chinese investors and groups, this is significant as so much Chinese investment has entered these less well-off countries. For example, on the African continent, Chinese groups have invested more than $50 billion between 2003-17, according to the Financial Times. What other investment opportunities could these LEDCs support if the infrastructure is already in place?

In February, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched two Internet-relaying rockets into orbit and began broadcasting back to Earth. SpaceX’s Starlink constellation will be made up of approximately 12,000 low-Earth-orbit satellites that wirelessly relay high-speed Internet connectivity to Earth via radio links.

Although the project is expected to take years to complete and will take a significant amount of technical work, one SpaceX engineer noted that “This system, if successful, would provide people in low to moderate population densities around the world with affordable high-speed Internet access, including many that have never had Internet access before.”

In 2016, the World Economic Forum noted that 4 billion people still don’t have Internet access so a project like SpaceX’s could be monumental. There are countless industries that rely on the Internet for business and business opportunities that some populations are missing out on because of a lack of Internet connections. Take China’s rural communities as an example; although some 731 million people use the Internet in China, as of the end of 2017 rural Internet users made up just 27.0% of Internet users in the country. With 42.7% of the Chinese population residing in the countryside, it means that there is huge room there to improve their access.

What contributions could they make, if they had access to the Internet? What innovative developments could Chinese people in rural areas create? SpaceChain wants to foster an environment by providing a platform for these sorts of ground-breaking projects. Zheng said that “We provide a platform for our partners and innovations to develop applications and services for developing countries for sure.” In particular, “One of our partners, Oceanchain will work with us to utilize our service to help the fisherman from developing countries, get entertainment content and also help them locate where they are, keep them secure.” It stands to reason that partnerships between SpaceChain and Oceanchain, which recognize the difficulties of people in non-urban locations, can benefit China’s rural communities too.

From Zheng‘s wide-reaching comments which touch upon local industry, entertainment, security and location-based technology, the benefits of satellite technology are made even more clear.

Aerospace companies may be focused primarily on what’s going on in the sky, but by opening access to satellite technology, you could see the positive effects of these projects all around you.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with SpaceChain nor any financial interest in their performance.

Kenny Au is the co-founder of LUXSENS. He writes about AI, blockchain, security, and sustainability. Kenny thinks about ways to build awareness, self-governance, and collective consciousness.

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