Supercharging Satellite Data

Impression of EDRS high-speed feeder link relays to Europe. Image courtesy of ESA.

Impression of EDRS high-speed feeder link relays to Europe. Image courtesy of ESA.

Satellite remote sensing is set for a speed turbo boost with the launch of the less than snappily named EDRS. The first node of the European Data Relay System (EDRS), which is effectively a space based satellite data super highway, was launched last Saturday.

Most satellites send data back to Earth only as they pass over ground receiving stations. In addition, they have an orbital track that takes them across the entire planet, travelling at speeds of around 7 000 miles per hour, which means they are only in range of a single receiving station for approximately 10 minutes of each orbit. Given the size of Earth observation (EO) datasets, there are limits to the speed EO data can be sent back from space and it becomes increasingly difficult to download the full amount of data that can be collected. This is partially offset by having a network of ground receiving stations across the world. For example, Landsat has an international ground station (IGS) Network that includes three stations in the USA alongside 15 in other countries across the world.

The EDRS works in a different way. It is based in a much higher orbit than many EO satellites, an orbit called geostationary, which means that the satellite remains above the same place on Earth at all times and thus is in constant contact with its ground station. ERDS collects data from EO satellites by laser, and can stay in contact with the satellites for a much longer period because of its higher height. Once the EDRS has received the data, it immediately relays the data to its ground station.

EDRS-A was launched by piggybacking the Eutelsat 9B satellite, whilst a second satellite, curiously called EDRS-C, is due to launch in 2017. The International Space Station will also be connected up in 2018, and a third satellite is planned for launch in 2020 and will sit over the Asia-Pacific region. It will require further satellites to provide twenty-four hour all orbit data relay coverage.

After a significant testing phase, EDRS is expected to go into service this summer. The European Commission’s Copernicus Programme will be the first major customer, relaying data from its Sentinel satellites.

Once fully operational the system will be capable of relaying up to 50 terabytes of data each day at speeds of up to 1.8 gigabits per second, which is about 90 to 100 times faster than a typical internet connection.

This will dramatically improve access to time-critical data, and will benefit a variety of applications including:

  • Rescue and disaster relief teams that need EO data to focus and support their work.
  • Monitoring fast moving environmental issues such as forest fires, floods, pollution incidents and sea ice zones.
  • Government and security services that could utilise real time data to support their aircraft and unmanned aerial observation vehicles.
  • Monitoring of illegal fishing or piracy events.

EDRS will certainly supercharge EO and remote sensing, offering new opportunities for the provision of near real time applications to a variety of users.

Two Fantastic Remote Sensing Innovations

Aberdeenshire (Scotland) January 2016 flooding captured by Sentinel-1; Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA

Aberdeenshire (Scotland) January 2016 flooding captured by Sentinel-1

Two academic remote sensing research announcements caught our eye this week. To be fair most remote sensing announcements catch our eye, but these two were intriguing as they are repurposing remote sensing techniques.

Remote Sensing the Human Body
Researchers at Kyoto University Centre of Innovation have developed a system based on spread-spectrum radar technology to remotely sense signals from the human body. They have focussed on heartbeats, although they acknowledge that other elements such as breathing and movement are also measured by the system. It uses a unique signal analysis algorithm to extract the beats of the heart from the radar signals, and then calculates the intervals to give the heartbeat.

Anyone who has ever needed to wear a Holter monitor for twenty-four or forty-eight hours will appreciate the advantage of having measurements taken remotely, in real time. In addition, under controlled conditions, the system has worked with a similar accuracy to an electrocardiographs (ECG). This will be music to the ears of regular ECG takers who know how much removing those sticky electrode pads can hurt!

This system is still at an early developmental stage and further testing and validation is necessary, but it offers a potential new use of remote sensing technology.

Remote Sensing & Social Media
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University have led a project developing an innovative way of combining social media and remote sensing. The research was undertaken on a flood in Boulder, Colorado in September 2013 with a particular focus on urban locations.

The team identified over 150,000 flood related tweets and used a cloud-based geo-social networking application called CarbonScanner, from The Carbon Project, to cluster the pictures from Twitter and Flickr to identify flooding hotspots. These were then used to obtain optical data, in this case from the high resolution commercial satellite Worldview 2 and the lower resolution, but freely available, Landsat 8.

A machine learning algorithm was developed to perform a semi-automated classification to identify individual pixels that contained water. As the data was optical it used the near infrared band as, due to its strong absorption, water is easily distinguishable from soil and vegetation. The researchers believe that this methodology has the potential to give emergency teams near real-time data, which could make live-saving differences to their work.

This is a particularly interesting development for us, given our current work on flood-mapping using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data as part of the Space for Smarter Government Programme.

These two current examples show that remote sensing is an exciting, innovative and developing field, and one that is not solely related to Earth observation.

Why Satellite Agri-Tech Applications Will Grow In 2016?

Pixalytics-show preview image2016 is likely to be the year of agri-tech for remote sensing. Its potential has been highlighted for some time, but last year its call was loud and clear.

Agri-tech is the use of technology to improve agriculture production in terms of yield, efficiency and profitability. With a growing global population the need to become more effective and sustainable food producers is obvious, and technology can assist in terms of robotics, biotechnology, navigation, communication, etc. However, it’s opportunities offered by remote sensing that’s most exciting to us – of course, we’re probably biased!

Remote sensing has a wide range of applications for agriculture that range from mapping the underlying soil and crop plus the monitoring of invasive species through to defining seed density optimisation, irrigation management, harvest weather forecasting, yield estimation and long term land change / land use modelling. Essentially, we can offer support from planting to plating!

Despite this potential, uptake within the agricultural sector has been low. A survey of farmers by London Economics / the Satellite Applications Catapult last summer identified barriers that included cost, small-scale justification, reliable mobile / internet signal, lack of software to view data, lack of knowledge and the lack of proven benefits.

So with all of these issues, why are we saying agri-tech will grow in 2016? There are three good reasons:

Benefits Examples – Case studies with concrete examples of the usage of remote sensing are being published. For example, NASA and Applied Geosolutions, worked together using Landsat 8 and MODIS data to examine temperature, greenness, leaf moisture and surface water. This allowed them to develop rice crop management plans, particularly surrounding irrigation, improving both harvest forecasts and actual yields.

Copernicus Sentinel – I know we’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again, this is a game changer. Both Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 data have signals that can be related to vegetation phenology, i.e. how plants change over time. As this data is free, it should allow companies to offer farmers products and services that are not cost prohibitive. Also, as the follow-on missions are launched then the frequency of data coverage will increase – particularly important for optical sensors where clouds can get in the way. Pixalytics has a Sentinel-2 vegetation product in test, which has already been applied to Landsat and very high resolution data, so it’s an area we’re looking to develop further – the image shows a Landsat-8 image processed over land using a Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) based algorithm.

Other Data – In June the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be making over 8,000 data sets freely available that should cover information such as soil and crop types for fields all over the country. It will provide a wealth of information for farmers to understand what crops they should be growing in which fields to maximise their yields. In addition, the UK’s National Biodiversity Network offers air quality and river level readings.

Taken together these elements offer new opportunities for SME’s to get involved and develop products that will offer real benefits to farmers, both large and small, and will overcome the barriers to them utilising agri-tech. For the right company, with the right idea and right implementation then 2016 will be a high yield year!

If you are interesting in agri-tech and would like to talk to us about what can be done, and what we could offer then please get in touch.

Jason-3 Sets Sail for the Oceanographic Golden Fleece

Artist rendering of Jason-3 satellite over the Amazon. Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Artist rendering of Jason-3 satellite over the Amazon.
Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Jason-3 oceanographic satellite is planned to launch on Sunday 17th January from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, aboard the Space-X Falcon 9 rocket. Named after the Greek hero Jason, of the Argonauts fame, Jason-3 is actually the fourth in a series of joint US-European missions to measure ocean surface height. The series began with the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite launched in 1992, followed by Jason-1 and Jason-2 which were launched in 2001 and 2008 respectively.

Jason-3 should provide a global map of sea surface height every ten days, which will be invaluable to scientists investigating circulation patterns and climate change.

The primary instrument is the Poseidon-3B radar altimeter, which will measure the time it takes an emitted radar pulse to bounce off the ocean’s surface and return to the satellite’s sensor. Pulses will be emitted at two frequencies: 13.6 GHz in the Ku band and 5.3 GHz in the C band. These bands are used in combination due to atmospheric sensitivity, as the difference between the two frequencies helps to provide estimates of the ionospheric delay caused by the charged particles in the upper atmosphere that can time delay the return.

Once the satellite has received the signal reflected back, it will be able to use its other internal location focussed instruments to provide a highly accurate measurement of sea surface height. Initially the satellite will be able to determine heights to within 3.3cm, although the long-term goal is to reduce this accuracy down to 2.5cm. In addition, the strength and shape of the return signal also allows the determination of wave height and wind speed which are used in ocean models to calculate the speed and direction of ocean currents together the amount and location of heat stored in the ocean.

In addition, Jason-3 carries an Advanced Microwave radiometer (AMR) which measures altimeter signal path delay due to tropospheric water vapour.

The three location focused instruments aboard Jason-3 are:

  • DORIS (Doppler Orbitography and Radiopositioning Integrated by Satellite) – Uses a ground network of 60 orbitography beacons around the globe to derive the satellite’s speed and therefore allowing it’s precise position in orbit to be determined to within three centimetres.
  • Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) – An array of mirrors that provide a target for laser tracking measurements from the ground. By analysing the round-trip time of the laser beam, the satellite’s location can be determined.
  • Global Positioning System – Using triangulation from three GPS satellites the satellites exact position can be determined.

The importance of extending the twenty-year time series of sea surface measurements cannot be underestimated, given the huge influence the ocean has on our atmosphere, weather and climate change. For example, increasing our knowledge of the variations in ocean temperature in the Pacific Ocean that result in the El Niño effect – which have caused coral bleaching, droughts, wet weather and movements in the jet stream in 2015, and are expected to continue into this year – will be hugely beneficial.

This type of understanding is what Jason-3 is setting sail to discover.

Four reasons why 2016 will be big for Earth observation

Artist's rendition of a satellite - 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

2016 has caught its first few rays of sunlight, but is already shaping up to be an exciting year for Earth observation (EO). Here are four reasons why:

Reason One
China launched the world’s most sophisticated geostationary satellite, Gaofen 4, on the 28th December – okay I know that was technically 2015, but it will begin operating in 2016! Gaofen 4 is part of the China High-Resolution Earth Observation System (CHEOS) that aims have a suite of seven high definition satellites, with varied specifications, providing real-time all day global coverage in all weathers by 2020. Unusually for EO, the Gaofen 4 high-resolution satellite is in a fixed-point 36,000 km geosynchronous orbit focusing on China and the surrounding area.

It has two optical instruments: a visible light imager with 50 m resolution, and an infrared imager with 400 m resolution. The main applications are disaster prevention, disaster relief, agricultural planning and climate change monitoring.

Reason Two
NASA awarded the contract to build Landsat-9’s Operational Land Imager-2 (OLI) instrument to Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation on 31st December – yes, I know that was 2015 too!

OLI will have eight spectral wavebands with a resolution of 30 m, and one panchromatic waveband with a resolution of 15 m. This will help extend the Landsat archive that has over 40 years of continuous satellite images. Interestingly despite having a similar number of optical bands as ESA’s comparable Sentinel 2 satellites; the spatial resolution is poorer as Sentinel 2 has 10 m resolution for its visible wavebands.

Reason Three
There are a number of significant EO satellite launches planned for the coming twelve months. Highlights include for:

  • Jason 3 ocean altimetry mission on January 17th
  • ESA’s Sentinel 3A on 4th February
  • Astro-H X-ray observatory on February 12th
  • ESA’s Sentinel-1B on 14th April
  • Ten SkySat Earth observation satellites for Google/Skybox Imaging over the summer
  • Worldview 4 in September
  • Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series Program (GOES-R), a NASA/NOAA next-generation geostationary weather satellite, in October
  • Planet Labs are expected to deploy a significant number of small satellites from the International Space Station during the year, starting with Flock 2e’s twelve satellites, to enable them to provide terrestrial images for the entire Earth.

Reason Four
EO is a growing industry that had sales of $1.6 billion in 2014, up 60% from five years earlier. With the investment and development currently happening within the industry, it is anticipated that this growth will continue. Pixalytics is one example!

The focus in this, and future years, will be getting a broader user base for satellite imagery including providing more operational services using near real time imagery. This should offer potential new applications, services and markets to support the ongoing growth.

You can be part of it! Satellite imagery is no longer just for governments, space agencies or research bodies. Satellites still provide the large scale climate change, ocean and land monitoring; but there can also provide small scale support on everything from crop/field management, building and smart city planning, traffic/parking monitoring and even counting animals from space.

If you want to see how Earth observation might benefit your company, get in touch. We’d be happy to talk through what might be possible – you’ll never know unless you ask!

Want to know the top ten Pixalytics blogs of the year?

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Have you read all of our 2015 blogs? Did you miss a few weeks for a holiday? Whatever your answers, it turns out you may not have seen our most widely read blog last year.

As this is the final blog of the year we like to take a look back over the past fifty-two weeks and see which blog’s captured people’s attention, and conversely which did not!

So what have we discovered? Well, five of the top six most read blogs of 2015 were not actually written in 2015, but in 2014! This is a really positive thing for us, as it means our writing has a currency beyond the week/month/year in which it was written. The most widely read blogs in 2015, written in 2014, were in order:

  • How many Earth observation satellites are in space?
  • What do colours mean in satellite imagery?
  • How many satellites are orbiting the Earth?
  • Why understanding spatial resolution is important?
  • Remote sensing big data: possibilities and dangers

The remainder of the top ten were written in 2015, and in order were:

  • How many satellites are orbiting the Earth in 2015?
  • Mastering Landsat images in 5 simple steps!
  • Why counting animals from spaces isn’t as hard as you think?
  • Five Landsat quirks you should know
  • How many Earth observation satellites in orbit in 2015?

The eagled eyed amongst you will have noticed an interesting overlap between the two lists, namely the obvious interest in the number of satellites, and Earth observation satellites, orbiting the planet. I have a strong feeling a 2016 update will occur sometime next year!

We know counting the number of views of the blogs doesn’t give a true picture, as blogs issued earlier in the year are likely to have been read more than later ones. Therefore I’d like to give an honourable mention to three blogs written in November and December that still made it into the top 20, despite their limited time. These were:

  • Pixalytics is growing!
  • Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing
  • Sentinel-2 data released into the wild

This is our second year of weekly blog writing, and it has got a bit easier. We try wherever possible to have the blog written by Tuesday night, so it is ready to go out the next day. This has eliminated a lot of the pressure we had last year; arriving at the office on a Wednesday morning knowing we had a blog to issue in two hours and nothing written!

One thing we do ask ourselves each year, is whether all of this effort is worth it? I know if you read all the social media experts they will tell you it is vital to write a blog, but we think about whether our blog adds value to our business?

The answers this year came from:

  • Geo-Business 2015 and the 2015 UK Space Conference – We exhibited at both of these conferences and had a significant number of people come up to our stand and tell us that they read, and enjoyed our blog, which was great to hear.
  • Catalin, our new Erasmus student – If you read last week’s blog you’ll know that Catalin found Pixalytics by seeing a blog written by our summer Erasmus student, Selin.
  • Expert Authority – We know potential clients read our blog before developing a relationship with us, and it gives them a level of confidence in terms of Pixalytics being a company who knows its field and are up to date with what is happening.

We think the blog does add value to our business, and we intend to carry on next year.

We’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and a very successful 2016!

Thanks for reading.

The Road To Success….

Danube river crossing The Great Romanian Flood Plain. Image acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 3rd December 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

Danube river crossing The Great Romanian Flood Plain. Image acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 3rd December 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

‘On the road, you will face many stumbling blocks, twists, and turns… You may never know how far the road will take you.’ **

In my case, the road brought me to Plymouth, a city on the south coast of Devon, England, a magical place with great history and outstanding views.

What I am doing here? Well, I am pursuing my dream of becoming a GIS and Remote Sensing Specialist by doing an internship through the Erasmus + programme at a local company called Pixalytics. My mentor is Dr. Samantha Lavender, is a great professional with vast experience in this field, She is also the Chairman of the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies and former Chairman of the Remote Sensing & Photogrammetry Society. For me, this is about more than just getting a grade, earning credit, or making money; this is an opportunity to learn, ask questions, and impress with my eagerness.

Finding this internship was easy for me. With a short search on Google I found this Pixalytics blog, where a previous student here had posted her impressions and thoughts on the company. I immediately said “This worth trying!” In the next moment I opened my email started writing, I sent wrote emails to multiple addresses, to make sure my message reached the target. After just two days, I received an answer from Mr. Andrew Lavender and it was positive!

I was very happy and because I knew the departure papers would take over a month to be completed, I immediately started doing them. All of this happened at the end of September. After my papers were done, I bought my flight ticket to Luton Airport, then a bus to London and then onto Plymouth. I arrived on December 5th and so, like the previous student, here I am posting my own impressions and thoughts on the Pixalytics blog page.

My first day at Pixalytics started pretty badly, I got lost and arrived a little late. I now remind myself each morning to turn left, not right, when I get off the bus. I got a short introduction to the building where the company is located, and my office for the next three months, which by the way looks very good. The office has a professional, but relaxed, atmosphere and I soon started working, one of my first tasks being the downloading of Sentinel-2A data, which proved a very difficult one due to slow data speeds and functionality of the ESA Data Hub.

Over the next three months, I am expecting to assist Pixalytics in developing their agritech products, explore the potential of Sentinel-2A data and I will be doing my own research into Urban Sprawl in Romania. I am hoping to have the opportunity to present my research at a conference during my placement.

It has been over a week now since I came to Plymouth and I feel great, working at Pixalytics is a great opportunity for my career and I will take full advantage of this. I strongly recommend all students who want to burst their work experience and who want to see what it is like to be in a professional business environment, to search for Erasmus+ placement offers as I did. You will not regret it!

Blog written by Catalin Cimpianu

** Quote is by Tony Hassini, from ‘The Road To Success’

Sentinel-2A Data Released Into The Wild

False Colour Image of Qingdao, China, acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 21st August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

False Colour Image of Qingdao, China, acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 21st August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

Sentinel -2A is already producing some fantastic images, and last week ESA announced the availability of Sentinel-2A orthorectified products in the Sentinel Data Hub. This will enable Sentinel-2 data to be accessed more widely, although as we found out this week there are still a few teething problems to sort out.

At the top of the blog is a stunning image of the Chinese city of Qingdao, in the eastern Shangdong province. The false colour image shows the city of Qingdao and the surrounding area with the centre dominated by Jiaozhou Bay, which is natural inlet to the Yellow Sea. The bay is 32 km long and 27 km wide, and generally has a depth of around ten to fifteen metres; although there are deeper dredged channels to allow larger ships to enter the local ports. The bay itself has decreased by around 35% since 1928, due to urban and industrial growth in the area.

Jiaozhou Bay Bridge a sub-set of a false colour image of Qingdao, China, acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 21st August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

Jiaozhou Bay Bridge a sub-set of a false colour image of Qingdao, China, acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 21st August 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

There is a tenuous linguistic link between Plymouth, where Pixalytics is based, and Qingdao. Plymouth is branded as Britain’s Ocean City and Qingdao is home to the Ocean University of China. Qingdao does however, have a much greater claim to fame. It is home to the World’s Longest Bridge. The Jiaozhou Bay Bridge is 42 km long and transects the bay. It is clearly visible on the satellite image, although you might not be able to see it on the thumbnail image at the top of the blog. Therefore, if you look at the subset to the right, you should be able to see bridge clearly and boats on the bay.

Now Sentinel-2A data has been released into the Sentinel Data Hub, images like this are waiting for everyone in the world to discover. We’ve been testing Sentinel-2A data for a few months already, as were part of the community who gave feedback to ESA on the quality of the data. Sentinel-2A carries a Multispectral Imager (MSI) that has 13 spectral bands with 4 visible and near infra-red spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 10 m, 6 short wave infrared spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 20 m and 3 atmospheric correction bands with a spatial resolution of 60 m. When the identical Sentinel-2B is launched in late 2016, the pair will offer a revisit time of only 5 days.

The data from Sentinel-2A forms part of the Copernicus program and is freely available to use, as such it is bound to be very popular. So popular in fact, we found it difficult to get on the Data Hub this week, with slow data speeds and a few elements of the functionality not working efficiently. Although, we’re sure that these will be resolved quickly. Also, there are user guides and tutorials available on the website to help people use the data hub.

The Sentinel-2A data release, following on from the microwave data from Sentinel-1, is a watershed moment for Earth Observation companies, given their spatial resolution, revisit time and free availability, they offer a unique opportunity to develop satellite data services. We’re intending to use this data, are you?

Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing

Book ArrivalOur first book is out now!!! A dull and damp Saturday afternoon was spectacularly brightened by a deliveryman’s knock at the door, who handed over our first copies of the Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing – as you can see in the picture. It was the first time we’d got the finished paperback in our hands. Very exciting!

The book was written by us, Samantha Lavender and Andrew Lavender, and is published by CRC Press of the Taylor & Francis Group. It is a general how-to guide for anyone wanting to use remote sensing, guiding inexperienced individuals through the principles and science of remote sensing, and giving them the skills to undertake practical remote sensing at home with just a computer and free-to-access desktop software.

It’s a book Sam has wanted to write for many years: something which we hope opens up the exciting field we work in to new people. However she quickly realised that if she was writing an ‘idiots guide’, she needed an idiot – which she says is where I came in! Personally, I prefer the publisher description of me as a non-expert navigating the subject for the first time.

The first half of the book begins with the basic principles and history of remote sensing, next we have the science behind remote sensing and image processing and finally the first half is finished off with chapters on practical remote sensing and image processing with a variety of example exercises. The second half is focussed on applications of remote sensing within both land and marine environments, with details on the applications, scientific theory of the remote sensing techniques and associated practical exercises.

We aimed to make the book practical, readable and easy to understand. The principle we used was that if I couldn’t understand a section of the book, it had to be rewritten until I could understand it! We have also based it on open source software, using ESA’s Sentinel Application Platform (SNAP) and QGIS as our remote sensing and geographical information systems software. The default dataset we’ve used is Landsat; again as it is freely accessible, although a number of other datasets are also included.

We’d also like to start to build a community of ‘new’ remote sensors and so we launched a complementary website last weekend, www.playingwithrsdata.com – designed and written by the excellent i-Create Design and Square Apple. The website will keep the book users updated on any changes to software or data used in the book, provide additional exercises and a forum for people to ask questions and continue their learning.

We’re both very excited and proud about having our first book published, and we hope that people will enjoy reading it and working through the exercises to gain new skills. What’s that? You want to know where you can immediately get hold of a copy of the Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing. Well, clicking on this link will take you to our wonderful publishers who can make that happen!