At the 11th European Space Policy conference in Brussels, SciTech Europa met
with the head of the European Commission’s DG CONNECT, Roberto Viola, to discuss some
of the challenges facing space and how his DG is helping to overcome them.
In January, SciTech Europa travelled to the 11th European Space Policy
conference in Brussels. This important event in the EU policy calendar brought stakeholders
from across the sector to discuss the future of Europe’s space policy and so address some of the challenges that are either being experienced today or are anticipated moving forwards.
These include (but were not limited to) the sufficient exploitation of data, cyber defence
and security tools, and how to optimise the use of connectivity, digitisation and artificial
intelligence (AI) for space services.
On the side-lines of the event, the Director General of the European Commission’s DG
CONNECT, Roberto Viola, met with SEQ to discuss some of these challenges and the crucial
role that his Directorate General is playing in the all-important area where space and digital
Space remains an integral art of strategic EU policies as we look towards a stronger, more
competitive and more integrated Europe. What role is DG CONNECT playing here?
While the European Commission’s lead Directorate General for space is DG GROW, at DG
CONNECT we are co-operating very well with them when it comes to space policy; they are
in the lead and we happily follow.
Of course, space is an integral part of what we do in DG CONNECT, which is everything
digital. Whatever you look at in the digital arena, space becomes very relevant. This is true
for areas from the use of images provided by satellites which have become extremely
important in artificial intelligence, to the agriculture sector.
One of the central themes of today’s conference on space policy is security, and we are
continuing to explore how we can integrate space technology into the technology we find
on the ground; a significant part of this is the utilisation of quantum, ultra-secure systems,
which, when properly employed, could become something of a ‘cyber shield’ for Europe.
DG CONNECT has the lead in the Commission for cybersecurity technology and policy, and
we have made important advances on the legislative side with the new Cyber Security Act
and we now need to concentrate on the most important technologies that will make a
difference moving forwards.
What are your thoughts on the Quantum Technologies Flagship here?
The Quantum Flagship is a DG Connect initiative, and we are very excited about that.
In a relative sense, Europe invests more than both the USA and China in quantum
technologies, and the Flagship is a starting point for us. When looking at the key
technologies that are being focused on within the Flagship – such as quantum computing
and quantum key distribution (QKD) – there is certainly a key role for space to play moving
Is enough being done to link the digital and space economies?
Yes, I think so. It is important to remember that almost all digital technologies have their
origins in the space sector. The smartphone is a perfect example here: all of the
technologies that exist within a smartphone, from the GPS to the image compression, come
from the space sector; space has always led the way when it comes to digital.
However, there is a sense that this has begun to change slightly in recent years. For
instance, when you consider the most advanced computing solutions that are available at
the moment, then space is actually having to catch up a little, and in areas such as
supercomputing, AI, and blockchain, there is a real need for space to more quickly embrace
the rapid advances that are being made in order to make real the possible, and indeed
necessary, synergies that are promised.
While Europe is leading the way with regard to investing in quantum in comparison to other
countries, is it important to consider the level of private investment coming from companies like Samsung, Apple, and others?
Yes, it is important to acknowledge that such private companies are investing here.
However, that should be distinguished from what is happening in the public sector. When it
comes to AI research, Europe is making a concerted effort in areas such as advancing
quantum, QKD, and so on, and while there are companies out there which are also
interested and active in these areas, public investment here remains fundamental. We
believe that QKD is going to be the next big thing, and so we are taking steps to ensure we
are placed at the forefront and are addressing the challenges head on.
How is the Commission supporting the roll-out of 5G across Europe?
We are passionate about this. 5G, which is a transformative technology, must be realised
quickly everywhere in Europe, and we have therefore developed a new set of rules, the
European Electronic Communications Code (ECC), which is designed to facilitate this
development. In addition, we have also invested heavily in R&D and we are now entering
the next phase, which will see cities receiving investment through the ‘Wi-Fi for Europe’
project (WiFi4EU), which could evolve into 5G for Europe.
Can you tell me more about financing for digital infrastructure and implementation in the EU?
We have two lighthouse programmes for the next Financial Framework, one is the Digital
Europe programme, which will finance big digital projects (and will hopefully achieve things
which have not been done before) in the areas of supercomputing, quantum, encryption,
and AI. The proposal, which is for €9.2bn, however, still needs to be agreed by the European Parliament and Member States within the future Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).
The other is the Connecting Europe facility, which is more about connectivity. This is a €3bn
programme to realise things like hyper-connected highways, which will be crucial for the
realisation of fully autonomous cars, for example, as well as other projects such as, as I have mentioned, the continuation of Wi-Fi for Europe. These two programmes work hand-in-hand.
Big Data presents some quite unique challenges, and the space sector generates massive
amounts of data which needs to be processed and perhaps standardised in order for it to be accessible and useful to the research community. Is there enough of a focus being placed on the technologies and infrastructure that this requires?
For some decades now, the space sector has perhaps been so focused on sending things
into space that important investments in the ground-based infrastructure have been
lacking, and this is certainly true with regard to the processing and utilisation of data.
Indeed, Copernicus has suffered from this a little, with the data this mission is generating
not being utilised as much as it could/should be.
IThe new focus on open data is a key opener, and satellite data will be a part of the smart
data sets that are to be made available in a special format so that they can be used in AI
I increasingly see a marriage between Earth Observation images and AI, and it is important
that this is supported (at DG Connect, we are placing a lot of emphasis on and investment in
synergies, too) and I hope to see this Directive becoming European law very soon.