‘New Space’ in human life An interview with Giovanni Corredor, retired colonel of the Colombian Air Force

Giovanni Corredor is an Electronic Engineer with master’s studies in Engineering Management and Defense and National Security and worked in the military for 22+ years. He shares more about space affairs from his experience in the Colombian Airforce and Vicepresidency of Colombia.



We would like you to introduce yourself and tell us a little about you!

I am Giovanni Corredor, retired colonel of the Colombian Air Force. The last position I held was that of space affairs advisor for the Vice-Presidency of the Republic of Colombia.

To have a common ground, how would you define aerospace technology?

It is all the technology that is related to going into space, from what is needed on the ground, to what goes directly into space, not only for scientific issues but also for technological ones. I mean, just from things like space exploration, which is kind of NASA’s focus, but also the commercial exploitation of space, all of that can be considered space technology.

How does it affect human beings?

Very much, it would be very difficult to have a day without space. We have reached a point where the dependence of modern life on resources that come from space is very high. For example, the computer systems through which we use the Internet, use the GPS signal that is in space to synchronize all these systems, it is a signal that is called a time clock. If this did not exist, communications between systems would be difficult, which shows us a little bit the degree of dependence we have on space technology.

TechLATAMAsia has food tech projects in China and Singapore and a mobility project in Chile. Have you seen space technology working, for example, in the agricultural and mobility sectors?

Colombia is one of the countries that least takes advantage of satellite technology in the agricultural sector. Because of this, there is a great potential to develop business from products coming from space. For example, in 2020, doing the cost-benefit analysis for Colombia’s Earth observation constellation, we had a meeting with Fedepalma[1]. They have a problem with a bacterium called ‘pudrición del cogollo’ (bud rot) which has caused losses of around $2.5 billion in 10 years. Certain weather conditions can help the bacteria to appear, and, through satellite images, we could determine if it will appear and detect it before it spreads throughout the crop. These images also help to determine the time to apply fertilizer and the amount, which also helps to increase productivity. Also, in Argentina, in 2019 or so, they launched a radar satellite that they built for crop monitoring, especially wheat and soybeans, as they are a powerhouse producing those cereals. With this, they convinced the government to get funding to build the satellite and help monitor crops, improving productivity.

Regarding mobility issues, road construction and design are an example. In Colombia, with such a rugged terrain crossed by three mountain ranges, the use of satellite images and, in general, the use of geospatial information can help. Having a different perspective of the territory helps in the planning of such large infrastructure works required by the country. The 4G roads, for example, or designing new hydroelectric plants and defining the impact on the environment and the communities that live there. In the year 2020, in the logistics public policy (Conpes[2] 3982), for the first time, there is talk of multimodal logistics, where the emphasis was placed on having positioning and monitoring systems to determine the location and timing of cargo vehicles.

This sector is usually related to a political race between large countries, but it would be interesting to know, how this technology can help developing countries?

What has happened in recent years with the “new space”, is no longer the cold war race between East and West, it now involves the private sector and this brings greater efficiencies. From the construction of satellites, the launching industry (500% cheaper), to the added value of information. With private owners of constellations, there are new business models and this means that countries like Colombia, which for the moment has not allocated resources to have its space assets, are opportunities to take advantage of these resources.

Also, at first, when talking about space, you remember Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon for the first time, and it may feel very far away from life on Earth. But, the Apollo program brought many advances in ‘spillovers’ (the passing of technology from one sector to others), for example, to the pharmaceutical sector, the textile technology sector, and the food industry.

The revolutions that have taken place are because that technology could be transferred from that field to others and generate greater wealth. This is to say that, even what we see so far from our reality, continues to benefit us. It makes even more sense, for example, to have a satellite with the mission of monitoring the territory of a country, that is directly connected to the life quality of the people. At the Colombian Space Commission (CCE), we measured the impacts that acquiring the satellite constellation could bring to the economy. We did it with the agricultural sector and the reduction of losses due to natural disasters, to know how much money we could save. In this case, the Colombian National Planning Department (DNP) had calculated that, due to natural disasters, about 5% of the annual GDP is lost, which is a lot of money. If we could make an impact on that by using satellite technology to act faster or before disasters happen, we would be almost paying for a constellation by itself.

But even so, if you don’t want to invest in having constellations, the private sector already offers many opportunities for us to use the information. In the end, the most important thing is not the satellites, but how I use the information that comes from there. From the sovereignty of the countries, there is the ambition to be the owner of the satellite, but when talking about how to benefit a country, it is necessary to be able to manage that information for public policy decisions, not to be the owner of the satellite. In this case, in countries like Colombia, which have deficiencies in infrastructure, and where the presence of the State is not throughout the national territory, a single satellite located in space can cover large amounts of territory, monitor and help the communities that are living more isolated in the country.

With your experience in these issues, how have you seen the involvement of the private sector, and do you know of incentives for this?

Here in Colombia, we have tried, but the mechanisms for this have not been developed. Within the CCE, the Vice President (Marta Lucía Ramírez) has reaffirmed the need for the private sector to get involved, but this is not an industry in which the private sector has the initiative to invest. This was discussed with the DNP when we were making the space public policy, they did not understand why the government had to get involved. However, this case is not like finding an oil field, which, if the government does not get involved, the private sector does because there is a market for it. In this case, if I start developing satellites, who is going to buy them? Until there is one in orbit, people are not trusting. That is why governments play a very important role in providing incentives, and also in participating in the market. The United States, they have more than 50 years of evolution where everything was developed by the government. In this, the private companies were government contractors, and now there is such a mature market that the private companies decide to invest on their own. But we are not at that point of maturity, therefore, a private company here is not going to invest if it does not see a market opportunity. The main contractor of space services is the government.

Related to the previous question, even if it is a somewhat premature sector, do you know companies or startups working on these issues? If yes, which ones?

In Colombia, some companies are mostly in charge of being representatives of companies from other countries. The company is incorporated, but in reality, they supply products from companies in other countries. Other companies are trying to compete in the image analysis market, and they have done well, but the images do not come from the assets of any Colombian. However, it is interesting because they are in a sector where they add value to those products that come from space. Here there was a company that was dedicated to the construction of satellites, founded in 2007-2008. It is called Sequoia Space, it still exists, but it changed its mission, they got tired of trying to sell satellites to the government, which did not want to buy from them, and they ended up changing its value offer. Now they are dedicated to consulting or analysis of satellite images because they did not have any success through the construction of satellites.

Which emerging countries in the sector are leading the way in this topic?

In this topic, we are only going to talk about emerging countries in the space sector. One country that is developing very good technology in Denmark, a country with a very high GDP per capita, but in the space sector it was not a relevant player. About 8 years ago, a company called GomSpace, it has already become a reference in the construction of small satellites, they won contracts with the European Space Agency and set up a branch in the United States to obtain funds through NASA. Developments continue to be seen in first-world countries, with a highly developed economies, even if they do not have a background in space. There is the case of Sweden, Korea with important developments, or the United Arab Emirates with a program where they have invested more than 5 billion dollars, where they also want to go to Mars.

In the case of Latin America, Brazil and Argentina continue to be the two leaders, even with all their difficulties. It is incredible what Argentina has done, they are capable of building their satellites. They cannot launch them, but they can build highly developed satellites, even with all the difficulties that their economy has, they continue to bet on space. With the Bolsonaro government, Brazil began to revive its space program. They had a very ambitious program, although they canceled it due to an accident at the Alcantara spaceport. But since the president came in, the space issue became relevant again. They signed the technological safeguards agreement with the United States that allows U.S. companies and U.S. military forces to launch satellite payloads from outside U.S. territory, which is something very important.

What is needed in these regions to move up the ladder and become stronger in this sector?

More decisiveness on the part of the government. That it stops being a speech and that investments are made. This government has made great progress even without putting money into it. So, what we could do with a dedicated budget and with an entity in charge of developing these activities would be very important.

What can private or non-governmental actors work on to start getting more out of this industry and make it grow?

A few years ago, in 2016, in Colombia there is a non-profit foundation that was named Agencia Espacial de Colombia, they are developing initiatives that are focused on the topic of STEM education and they also want to develop satellite construction projects. Although about a year and a half ago they announced that they were going to launch a satellite this year, it has not been possible. I think that demonstrates the fact that, on their own, even if they have the will, they need the government’s hand.

Last year another private society was also created called ‘National Space Society – Colombia chapter’, they are looking to work hand in hand with the government to develop the space issue, but there is no interlocutor that has the power within the government for the issue. That was a little bit what I was doing when I was in the vice presidency, but I did not have the resources. In that case, how do I invite projects if, in addition, I had to coordinate decisions with 15 or so entities. I think it also shows that there are still more things to be done from the governmental side to have an impact on the private sector.

[1] The National Federation of Colombian Oil Palm Growers (Federación Nacional de Cultivadores de Palma de Aceite de Colombia)

[2] It refers to the document of the National Council for Economic and Social Policy (CONPES), which sets out the route for public policies in different sectors in Colombia.