Remote Sensing and the DIKW Pyramid

DIKW PyramidSatellite remote sensing industry is evolving and anyone working in it needs to become familiar with the Data, information, Knowledge, Wisdom (DIKW) pyramid as this is one map, albeit simplistic, of the industry’s and our current journey.

Historically, satellite data was either sold as the original image or with a small amount of processing undertaken. If anyone wanted to do anything beyond basic processing, they had to do it themselves. However, things are changing.

According to a recent Euroconsult report, at least 3,600 small satellites will be launched over the next decade. The United Nations Office on Outer Space Affairs only lists 7,370 objects that have ever been launched into space, of which only 4,197 are still in orbit. We’re increasing the number of objects orbiting the Earth by 85% by smallsats alone, larger satellites will add even more.

The volume, variety and speed of this data collected by these satellites will present a step change not only in the type of applications companies will be able to offer, but, crucially, also in customer expectations – more and more they will be looking for added value.

One way of considering this is through the DIKW pyramid, which can be seen at the top of the blog, it’s credited to American organisational theorist Russell Ackoff in 1989, building on the ideas of Milan Zeleny two years earlier.

A simple summary of the pyramid starts with the collection of data which means nothing in its own right, it is simply data. Information is derived from data by asking the who, what, where, when and how questions. Knowledge is information to which expert skills and experience have been added to create more value – which is more profitable in a business context. Finally, wisdom is understanding what actions to take based on the knowledge you’ve gained.

Applying this to satellite remote sensing for agriculture, one example might be: data is the satellite data/image of the field. Information is knowing when the image was taken leading to where in the growing cycle the crop was. Knowledge is applying scientific algorithms to know the soil moisture, how much nutrients are in the soil or how much vegetation is present in various parts of the field. Wisdom is knowing what nutrients and fertilizers to apply, based on the knowledge gained, to improve crop yields.

A lot of Earth observation products are at the data or information level, with a few at the knowledge level, and even fewer at the wisdom level. Customers more and more want wisdom products, and they aren’t that interested in what was required to create them. When you add to this the additional types of geospatial information, e.g., optical and radar used together alongside airborne and in-field ground based measurements, the variety of open datasets and the new science and technological breakthroughs, things are going to look very different, very quickly.

We’d accept that the DIKW isn’t a perfect tool, nor a perfect representation of our industry, but it is simple, indicative and worth thinking about. We wrote about our intention to create products in an earlier blog. We’re a long way from the wisdom sector, but are hoping to be firmly within the knowledge sector and collaborating to create wisdom. It’s not easy and some companies will find it harder to do than others, but is going to be the future. How are you preparing?

Is the remote sensing market an urban legend?

Yeti footprints

Yeti footprints on ice – erectus/123RF Stock Photo

The remote sensing/Earth observation (EO) market is like the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster – there are plenty of people out there who tell you it exists, but very few companies have seen it with their own eyes!

We work in a fast growing and expanding industry, at least according to the myriad of reports that regularly drop into our inboxes. For example, over the last few weeks we’ve had press releases such as :-

With all this growth everything in the remote sensing/EO industry is fantastic, right? Well, no actually! Despite the report announcements, lots of companies within the industry are struggling to locate this valuable market.

Historically, a lot of funding was provided by governments and space agencies in the form of grants or tenders to promote the use, and uptake, of EO data, which enabled companies to develop and grow. Whilst such sources of funding are still available; the maturing of the industry coupled with the global economic slowdown is starting to constrict this revenue stream, forcing more and more EO companies out in the commercial world looking for the fabled billion dollar market. This development is currently being supported by venture capital as the growth forecasts are encouraging investment, but how many of these companies will be able to transition into profit making businesses?

The Holy Grail for everyone is a reliable, consistent and expanding market for EO products and services, something that few businesses in our sector have successfully found. There are a variety of reasons why the market feels like an urban legend, including:

  • Lack of knowledge on the products wanted leading to supplier led, rather than consumer led, product development.
  • Lack of an existing market meaning that EO companies need to work hard on advertising to tell possible customers they exist and the benefits they can offer.
  • Monopolistic behaviour of governments/space agencies. These bodies have spent large sums to launch satellites and need to demonstrate value for money. For example, the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme recently announced its intention to develop agriculture products from Sentinel data. Rather than developing the market, this could potentially destroy the market for existing EO companies.

It’s clear that to get proof of a remote sensing/EO market, companies need to develop value for money products that customers want, demonstrate the benefits of satellite data as an information source and stand out from the other legend hunters!

Here at Pixalytics we’re in the process of packing our data, securing our satellite links and checking our geo-referenced maps, ready to set out onto our journey in search of the fabled market. To date, our businesses has focussed on bespoke specialised products for individual customers and now we’re also hoping to develop more standard products that can be processed on demand, or made available from a pre-processed archive.

Of course we don’t have all the answers of where to find the customers, what the right products are or the best way of making letting people know we exist and we can help them. Although having seen the cost of these industry reports, we’re starting to think that writing, and selling, remote sensing/EO market reports is where the real money is!

Over the next few months, we’ll use this blog to tell you about our journey, the mistakes we make and what we learn. As we get a glimpses into the market we’ll put it up here, although it might be grainy and indistinguishable – but then aren’t all urban legend pictures!

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.