Interview with Václav Kobera, Director of Department of Intelligent and Transport Systems, Space Activities and Research, Development and Innovation of the Ministry of Transport:
The Czech Republic is doing things no one would expect
Although the Czech Republic has not yet caught up with space giants such as the United States, France or Germany, its voice is clearly heard. Since joining the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2008, the country has made tremendous progress. “We can be proud of our achievements. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic‘s industrial and scientific potential in the space sector is greater still,” says Václav Kobera.
The name of the department you run at the Ministry of Transport sounds rather extensive. What does it mean and what scope of activities does it cover?
To summarise it in simple terms, in addition to space activities, we deal with all modern transport technologies. Specifically, we deal with intelligent transport systems, autonomous control and the associated smart infrastructure, geoinformatics, and we cover transport research and development and some other minor topics. We address space activities in the Czech Republic in a comprehensive manner. We bear direct responsibility for most of them and coordinate some others which fall under the responsibility of other ministries. In short, we define, support, promote and protect the interests of the Czech Republic in the field of space activities. The reason is that space activities represent the cutting edge of technology and have high added value. Their development is closely related to the economic, political and security interests of individual states and, consequently, to their investment policies. The situation is complicated by the fact that individual countries are, as a rule, forced to cooperate closely in space activities as a result of their complexity and technical and financial demands.
How long have you been the Director of your department at the Ministry of Transport and what brought you to that position?
I have been working at the Ministry of Transport for almost fifteen years. I have been the Director of the Department since 2011. Before that, I was the Deputy Director. My first contact with space activities took place at the end of 2006 when the Czech Republic presented its candidacy for the location of the EU Global Navigation Satellite System (GSA) Agency, which is now based in Prague. Previously, I dealt with international aviation law and civil aviation protection against unlawful actions.
Does your current role require any particular skills?
First of all, I am neither an engineer nor a scientist, However, I consider this to be an advantage. It gives me the opportunity to stay on top of things from a higher perspective, which is needed to comprehensively manage this extensive scope of work. The thing is, you usually reach your goal by combining the technical, economic and legal aspects of the matter. Naturally, I am very interested in aerospace in its own right, but I mainly see its great potential for the development of the Czech Republic, its economy and its reputation.
What role does the state play in the space sphere?
Countries involved in space activities are mostly aware of the potential and opportunities available. Therefore, they seek to create an environment that would be the most appropriate and advantageous for the development of their industries. At the European Space Agency (ESA), Member States pursue not only their own but also common objectives. Even in achieving common goals, individual states’ interests can be complementary or competitive. For us, the ESA membership today is the backbone of the development of our space capacities and capabilities and a major opportunity to participate in space projects. As for the role of the state in ESA, the government needs to monitor the direction of the investments so that they primarily incubate the capabilities of the Czech industry, open doors to new opportunities, negotiate with other states, and strike a balance between ours and their interests. Without an active role of the state, Czech companies would not have much chance to develop space technologies, and enter and remain in the supply chains of foreign companies. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to implement a series of systemic measures at national and international levels, which create favourable conditions for the development of space activities in the Czech Republic. Membership in the European Union brings us further opportunities – in particular, as a Member State, we participate in defining the EU cosmic polity, setting up and implementing large projects such as Galileo or Copernicus or in preparing the user community.
To what extent does the Ministry of Transport, or the Czech Republic itself, supports space activities today?
The government support for space activities has been very visible in recent years. Space activities are now also part of the Innovation Strategy of the Czech Republic 2019 – 2030 and are explicitly mentioned in a number of its chapters. The Czech Republic’s perception of the high importance of this area is evidenced by the fact that subsidies for space activities have multiplied over the past few years. Even in 2015, we were contributing around EUR 15 million to ESA, today the amount has increased to around EUR 47 million. It is clear that in the Czech Republic more and more people are aware of the importance of space activities for the growth of our economy, the improvement of lives of our citizens and an increased visibility of the Czech Republic in Europe and the world. In general, the number of states realising that space activities can make a significant contribution to their development is increasing. It is not just about traveling to Mars, but also about satellite navigation, Earth observation or satellite telecommunications, and especially about their applications which all of us use on an everyday basis. Thanks to them we can use mobile or car navigation or withdraw money from an ATM.
2019 is the last year of the National Space Plan for 2014-2019. Have its objectives been met and what significant achievements have been reached in this period?
I must mention that the current National Space Plan is the second in the history of the Czech Republic. The first was approved by the government in 2010 for a period of six years. However, after only three years, we found that its goals had been met, so we prepared the current Plan much earlier than had been anticipated. So far, a lot of work has been done. We continued to focus primarily on building the Czech space industry and strengthening its capabilities. At present, as a result of joint efforts, more than forty domestic companies cooperate with ESA and many others operate as their suppliers. More than 20 academic entities cooperate with ESA in this country as well. There are more than 20 companies in the Czech Republic that have been or are being incubated within the ESA BIC business incubator in Prague and Brno. In addition, we have established an ESERO training office and technology transfer broker in the Czech Republic. Now, within the expiring National Space Plan, we are at the level we expected back in 2014. The Plan is already being evaluated and we can be happy with the result.
So, given the circumstances, one can say that the Czech Republic is very successful in space activities?
Given its circumstances, it certainly is. Of course, we still cannot compare ourselves with the United States or France, both cosmic powers. However, we have surely exceeded everyone’s expectations. In the past, everyone knew that the Czech Republic was an industrial country, but many things had to come together to enable the space industry to develop and function in this country. If we are to compare ourselves with a number of smaller or newer states under ESA, we are often much further ahead. We foster a progressive approach that can help us take the next steps faster and move closer to other states, including the largest ones. It is important to suitably interlink the strategies of the state, the industry and the academia. Cooperation and communication work well in the Czech Republic in the field of space activities, which is an essential prerequisite for success.
Do you know what the next National Space Plan will look like?
Yes, the new Plan has now been formulated, focusing on the period 2020 to 2025. It is now being discussed within the comment proceedings, which is a standard process before the governments approves these types of documents. It was discussed three times in the Coordination Council for Space Activities, as well as with industry and academia. In addition, as I have already mentioned, it is well integrated into the Czech Republic’s Innovation Strategy 2019 – 2030 and other strategic documents. The next National Space Plan has two main objectives. First, to further build the capacity and capabilities of the Czech space industry and academia to increase the Czech Republic’s competitiveness in the space sector, but also to make sure that space activities in the Czech Republic increasingly support the development of traditional non-space industries. Second, we want to be more visible in space activities. The Czech Republic is already perceived in Europe as a hard-working country; we are becoming the centre of the European Union’s space activities and our industry and academia are doing things that no one would have expected from the Czech Republic after ten years of ESA membership. On the other hand, we could be more visible in addressing global issues and space diplomacy.
Where would the Czech space industry be today without the membership of the European Space Agency?
Without ESA, almost nothing we have achieved so far would have been possible. We would not participate in ESA space projects and as a result, would not be developing the Czech space industry. It is thanks to ESA projects that our space industry can develop and qualify its technologies and subsequently market them. Only through the institutional market represented by ESA, do Czech companies, as a rule, reach the EU institutional market or the institutional markets of other countries and international organisations (e.g. EUMETSAT, World Bank and others) and above all the ever-growing commercial market. ESA ensures international cooperation and incubates and develops the capabilities of Czech companies. As a result of the completely unique principle of geographical return on contributions, ESA directly guarantees that the money invested will return to the Czech Republic through contracts for Czech companies and academia. In other words, ESA ensures that the activities are carried out directly in the Czech Republic and monitors their quality. In ESA, we protect the high technological level of such activities and try to make sure that Czech companies get involved in even bigger and more interesting projects.
We joined ESA in 2008 also because without a security agreement with this organisation it would not have been possible to succeed in the GSA location candidacy. Without this agreement, we would not get GSA to Prague.
How does the funding of space activities work within the European Space Agency and directly in the Czech Republic?
ESA has no money of its own, most funds are provided by the Member States, including the Czech Republic. Furthermore, a significant part of the ESA budget is made up of EU money appropriated for EU space system development. The funds that the Czech Republic appropriated for space activities is sent to ESA as contributions. According to ESA rules, Czech companies can obtain these funds in competition with companies from other countries or by direct negotiation of a contract for specific projects. Without the individual states’ funding, ESA would have no money and as such could not realise activities in the Czech Republic or anywhere else. We are currently negotiating what proportion of the state budget will be available for the next period to implement the new National Space Plan.
The Czech Republic has been a member of ESA since 2008, i.e. since the financial crisis. Throughout its membership, the economy has been improving. Would a greater economic downturn create a risk of reducing Czech investment in space activities?
Space activities have demonstrated that they develop steadily even in times when economies are not doing well. For example, during the last recession, financial results in this area continued to record significant growth. The added value in the space industry is proven to be greater than in other areas. At the same time, the demand for services based on space system products and data increases, creating increased pressure to produce new satellites and launchers in the best price/performance ratio. Investment decision makers are generally aware of this. Therefore, if the Czech Republic were not to participate in further developing space activities, someone else would grasp the opportunity to our detriment.
How do you perceive the reactions of the Czech public to the space industry, are they mostly positive? Many people find this field unnecessary and say that we should first address the problems on our planet before focusing on the universe.
First of all, space activities help to solve problems on Earth. Many of the current challenges are difficult to solve, or could not be solved at all, from Earth. That is why new satellite systems and new technological solutions are created. Consider whether, for example, satellite navigation could be replaced by an earth-based system that would work 24/7 anywhere in the world. The same applies to satellite communication or Earth observation. Not only in these areas are space activities completely irreplaceable. I can see a crucial role of space activities in transport, both in terms of technology transfer to automotive or aviation, and in terms of operation. Thanks to space activities, cars have airbags, contain incombustible materials, have lightweight yet solid structures and many other elements and technologies. Satellite navigation, coupled with smart applications, has fundamentally transformed land transport. On a global scale, this is about saving huge amounts of money and time, and about huge added value. At the same time, a new mode of transport is being created – space transport. Orbit monitoring systems are already in place today. Again, this requirement to monitor this kind of traffic is based on practice. Everything costs money, but these systems have not been made without reason.
I believe the general public perceives space activities positively. A Czech citizen likes to learn something new about the activities that are taking place in space, or what can be achieved thanks to space technologies and satellite systems and their applications on Earth. Another thing is people’s awareness of what we do in the Czech Republic – there is certainly scope for improvement here. Although we provide information actively, I consider Czech citizens’ awareness of our space activities to continue to be low. If someone is really interested, they can find information also in the media, but most of the time they need to proactively search for information on the Internet or social networks. To be honest, I really can’t say how many Czechs know that we are part of ESA or that such agency exists at all, or how many Czechs are aware that GSA has been based in the Czech Republic for almost seven years. Supporting various projects such as ESA BIC, which, thanks to CzechInvest, has excellent marketing helps us to raise awareness of the Czech space industry. Improved awareness is also significantly supported by the ESERO training office, whose operation affects tens to hundreds of thousands of people.
Is there sufficient number of students today who are interested in studying subjects related to space activities?
Space activities face exactly the same problem as other industries in the Czech Republic. So far, there are not enough university courses focused on space activities, but I believe that this situation is already changing thanks to the cooperation with academia. At the moment, people who get involved in space activities usually studied different subjects and learn what they need later on in practice. At present, the main problem is the lack of system engineers resulting from the lack the appropriate courses, which would help us to solve this deficiency.
What is the main goal of your department in terms of space tasks for the near future?
We need to have the National Space Plan approved soon for the next period including its funding so that we can ensure its implementation. Consequently, we need to join ESA’s new optional programmes at the ESA Ministerial Council in November to support the stability of the development of space activities in the Czech Republic. At the same time, we need to raise the awareness of our activities so that Czech projects and successes are more visible. The Czech Republic can certainly be proud of its achievements in this area.
Interviewed by: Martin Schwarz