TOKYO — Sony is set to make a foray into the rapidly growing private space industry, launching a business that will draw on its domestic appliance technology to mass produce optical communications devices for small satellites.
Numerous space startups have been launched in the U.S. and elsewhere in recent years, creating a market for small satellites and mini rockets that cost significantly less than those used in state-led projects. The new industry is estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars and is increasingly attracting companies that see an opportunity to use existing technologies.
Sony plans to develop communications devices by using its optical disc technology, which is used in products like CD players. The technology allows devices to read data stored in disc pits a few hundred nanometers wide. It is hoped the devices will be able to communicate with high precision satellites over 1,000km above the surface of the Earth.
Sony Computer Science Laboratories intends to begin testing the gadgets during the current business year in partnership with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The experiment will involve attempting to communicate with Kibo, Japan’s experiment module on the International Space Station. The plan is to develop the basic technology within two years in a race to become the world’s first company to mass produce such a system.
Communications in space are mostly made using radio waves, which have certain limitations in terms of efficiency and the amount of data that can be sent. Lasers can send and receive a steady stream of high-resolution images, which, for example, could be used to better to understand the impact of natural disasters in mountainous areas or urban traffic flows.
According to the Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies, the global market for space-related businesses was worth $329 billion in 2016. Government-led projects accounted for only 23% of the total. The market’s expansion has been driven by commercial interests, with private companies seeking to develop services that use technologies such as satellite imagery.
U.S. company SpaceX managed to cut rocket production costs by 30% by using parts sourced from the private sector. Japanese manufacturer Canon Electronics also entered the aerospace market with a low-cost control system. Sony wants to reduce development and production costs by using existing technology and set the standard for optical communications devices in the industry.