Rocket scientist and now mining tech entrepreneur Flavia Tata Nardini told the audience at this week’s Austmine 2023 conference in Adelaide that those humans at the frontiers of space and mineral exploration had more in common than they probably realised. “The souls are similar. They are souls of explorers, so we can learn from each other,” she said.
Tata Nardini co-founded Fleet Space Technologies in the South Australian capital six years ago and has watched the start-up’s valuation take off on the back of early demand for its nano-satellite and ambient noise tomography (ANT) based mineral exploration survey offering.
Fleet Space has launched seven of its own locally-made satellites and has many more in production.
The company beat a stellar field of about 30 companies to win this year’s Austmine Outstanding METS Innovation Award.
“I’m a rocket scientist [who] has had to hire a lot of mining operators and geoscientists and geologists because the critical mineral application we’re working on is starting to be a really interesting.
“I am in the middle of this connection between mining and space … Space [tech] is an enabler; it gives the ability to move data fast.”
The common ground between humanity’s next big off-world push – back to the Moon and then Mars – and its bid to advance so-called critical mineral discovery, recovery and use on Earth is currently being probed like never before and Australia’s technologically mature resources sector is an increasingly willing sharer of ideas and dollars.
Asked why he found himself addressing a mining conference, Australian Space Agency director Arvind Ramana said: “The straightforward answer is, there’s a lot of money in here.”
Tata Nardini indicated her start-up had now raised more than A$100 million to grow its global presence and expand its mining client base. She sees a clear future intersection with the US$90 billion Artemis missions.
“Artemis … wants to bring humanity to the Moon and Mars.
“You know what is interesting about this?
“I know this sounds really crazy for most of you here but this is going to happen in my lifetime – in the next 10 or 15 years.
“To stay [colonise] we need resources, and [if] you need resources you need to explore. When you need to explore you need mining [expertise].
“If you think it is hard to find a mining deposit in the middle of Africa, try to do it on Mars.
“We are in the middle of a revolution in the next 15 years, and it doesn’t have to be underestimated.”
Tata Nardini and Ramana spoke on a panel chaired by program director of three-year-old Australian Remote Operations in Space and on Earth (AROSE), Michelle Keegan. A mining engineer with more than 20 years of experience in the industry, she said she “never really thought at the beginning of my career that this would be such a focus”.
“But it’s a fabulous time to be working both in the space and the miner sectors, and even better to be working at the intersection.”
AROSE chair and respected mining executive David Flanagan has said space innovations are already helping decarbonise energy intensive marine and heavy industry activity, rail and road transport, and food production. “NASA estimates that for every $1 spent on the space sector, an additional $7-14 is generated in the broader economy,” he says. “Some say the new space race heralds the next and most profound industrial revolution in human history.”
Rio Tinto and Woodside Energy are two of the companies supporting an AROSE consortium working with the Australian Space Agency to develop lunar rover technologies in cooperation with NASA. More broadly, AROSE is working to leverage Australia’s remote resources operations expertise in industry-led projects aimed at advancing capabilities in space, mining and other industries.
Nokia head of energy sector sales and business development, Brendan Conroy, said the communications giant had been working in autonomous mining and industrial networks for about a decade, “so we’ve been on a journey with pretty much most of the METS [mining equipment, technology and services] industry in Australia and Australia has been seen as the world leader in this technology”.
“NASA has been working with Nokia for about five years now to put an LTE mobile network on the Moon and … we’ve taken the learnings from the [mining] autonomous systems; what’s worked, what hasn’t, and how to deploy it.”
Conroy said advances in high-bandwidth connectivity and communications that could enable the next level of HD video, robotics, sensing, telemetry and biometrics on the Moon would certainly shape the next generation of remote industrial networks.
Jason Crusan, who spent more than 14 years at NASA before moving to Australia “on a one-way ticket” to join Woodside Energy as new energy solutions vice president, saw significant scope to ramp up the knowledge and technology interchange between the resources and space sectors, but said “we need a lot more people [like him] in Australia”.
“Everybody in the US … in the engineering fields knows that Australia is really top notch in every single category. But most of the students in the universities don’t understand the excitement and complexity … in the resource sector,” he said.
“Space is kind of a sexy career path, but everyone wants to grow up to be an astronaut and most of them don’t. We end up with all these science and technology folks [spread] everywhere across industry.
“Before the GFC the biggest employer of mathematicians coming out of the top schools in the US was the banking industry in the US.
“I’m not really sure if that’s the best place for them. [It’s] not really an innovation place.
“We’d rather have them in more complex industries like mining and resources and space.”
Crusan said technologies being developed and commercialised at scale to help companies such as Woodside move into decarbonised energy production, storage and transport would find applications in mining, aerospace and transport. An electrolysis unit on Mars generating oxygen from its 77% CO2-rich atmosphere, and a host of technologies that had sustained the orbiting International Space Station for more than two decades, had bigger roles to play closer to home.
“It’s not all just about technology. It’s also about some of the science,” Crusan said.
“The scientific understanding that lives in the mining community and resource community can actually help us understand phenomena in the history of the solar system as such, too.
“If you can understand how things occurred millions of years ago we can understand where we’re heading.
“We also have remote operations, but we also send people to remote areas quite a bit. And there’s been decades of research on isolation psychology work that’s been done as part of NASA’s research.
“During the COVID lockdowns some of the companies reached out and NASA got some learnings from them to really understand how do we keep our workforce safe and how do we enable them to be better in challenging conditions.
“So don’t think just about the technology, think about the squishy bits in the middle – the biology – as well.”
Chris Eriksen, general manager technology and information management with Atlas Iron, part of Australia’s Hancock Prospecting mining group, said mining people had shown innovation and resilience for decades to establish operations and communities in unforgiving environments.
“I think we need to maintain that open mindedness as we move into some of the bigger issues that we’re going to face,” she said.
“It is a real shift, particularly from [Hancock] leadership, to trial different types of technology and be accepting of different types of thinking. And that’s particularly being open to more creative ideas to accept technologies from other industries.
“But it is something that I think the mining industry needs to focus on more broadly.”
Tata Nardini said: “What I’ve learned about the space industry and the mining industry, having seen the professionals working together [is] they’re actually much closer than what you guys think.
“[We’re] people solving really difficult problems, whether it’s looking for something 2km down, or 100km up … in the middle of nowhere; no certainty of success [and] big investment.
“Solving for humanity’s growth.”