Pixalytics Goes To Space … Well, Nearly!

Last week the Pixalytics name got lifted towards space! In a previous blog we described how we were supporting the Plymouth University Space Society launching a weather balloon.

After a number of attempts were thwarted by the wind and weather patterns of Plymouth, last Friday was the big day. A small band of the Space Society pioneers alongside myself and Howard from Salcombe Gin, spent half an hour battling to control a weather balloon in the wind as it was pumped full of gas and had a small Pixalytics branded payload attached including a Go-Pro Camera, balloon locator, various battery packs and a small bottle of Salcombe Gin. At the top of the blog is an image of the gin high above Plymouth.

Once we were ready, the balloon was carefully walked back a few paces, and then with our hearts in our mouths, it was launched! We watched it rise gloriously until it disappeared into the low cloud that was covering the city. For anyone who wants to see the launch, it was filmed and streamed on Facebook and the recording can be found here.

Once the launch euphoria had subsided, the Space Society team jumped into a car to follow the balloon towards the predicted landing site of Taunton. The payload had a device inside which when called replied with the balloon’s location to enable progress to be tracked. The balloon actually ended up around thirty miles to the east of the prediction, coming to rest back on Earth in Yeovil. Once they got close, the team had to ask an elderly resident for permission to look through her garden for the payload package. However, it was a success and the payload was retrieved!!

On examination of the footage, sadly the Go-Pro seemed to malfunction about 15 minutes into the flight and therefore we were not able to get full flight footage. However, this is the space industry and not everything goes to plan. Once you launch most things are out of your hands!

From the flight length and distance travelled the Space Society team estimate that the balloon went up above 32,000 m. Whilst that is only about one third of the way to the Karman line, which sits around 100,000m and is commonly viewed as the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and the outer space, it’s probably the highest point the Pixalytics name will ever get!

Readers will be aware that we do like the unusual marketing opportunity. We’ve previously had our name going at 100 miles per hour aboard a Caterham Formula One car, so who knows what might be next?

It was great to support local students with their adventure towards space, and hopefully it will inspire them to get a job in our industry and develop their own space career!

Rio Olympics from space

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, acquired on the 13th July 2016. Image courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, acquired on the 13th July 2016. Image courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

The Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics takes place on Friday and so we’ve decided to revive our highly infrequent blog series ‘Can you see sporting venues from space?’ Previously we’ve looked for the Singapore and Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix Circuits, but this week we’re focussing on the Rio Olympic venues.

Rio de Janeiro
The Games of the XXXI Olympiad will take place from the 5th to the 21st August in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. It is expected that more than ten thousand athletes will be competing for the 306 Olympic titles across 37 venues, 7 of which are temporary venues and 5 are outside Rio. The remaining twenty-five are permanent venues within the city, and 11 have been newly built for the Olympics and Paralympics. It is these permanent venues that we’ll see if we can spot from space!

The image at the top of the blog shows the Rio area, and you’ll notice the dark green area in the centre of the image which is the Tijuca National Park containing one of the world’s largest urban rainforest. It covers an area of 32 km².

Spatial Resolution
Spatial resolution is the key characteristic in whether sporting venues can be seen from space, and in simplistic terms it refers to the smallest object that can be seen on Earth from that sensor. For example, an instrument with a 10 m spatial resolution means that each pixel on its image represents 10 m, and therefore for something to be distinguishable on that image it needs to be larger than 10 m in size. There are exceptions to this rule, such as gas flares, which are so bright that they can dominate a much larger pixel.

We used the phrase ‘simplistic terms’ above because technically, the sensor in the satellite doesn’t actually see a square pixel, instead it sees an ellipse due to the angle through which it receives the signal. The ellipses are turned into square pixels by data processing to create the image. Spatial resolution is generally considered to have four categories:

  • Low spatial resolution: tend to have pixels between 50 m and 1 km.
  • Medium spatial resolution: tend to have pixels between 4 m and 50 m.
  • High spatial resolution: tend to have pixels between 1 m and 4 m.
  • Very high spatial resolution: tend to have pixels between 0.25 m to 1 m

Clearly with very high resolution imagery, such as that provided by commercial Worldview satellites owned by DigitalGlobe, can provide great images of the Olympic venues. However, as you know we like to work with data that is free-to-access, rather than paid for data. We’ve used Sentinel-2 data for this blog, which has a 10 m spatial resolution for its visible and near infra-red bands via the multispectral imager it carries.

Can we see the Olympic venues from space?
In our earlier parts of this infrequent series we couldn’t see the night race from the Singapore circuit, but we did identify the Abu Dhabi track and red roof of the Ferrari World theme park. So can we see the Olympics? Actually we can!

Image courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

Image courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

On the image to left, you’ll notice two bright white circles, one in the middle of the image and the second to the south-east. The bright circle in the middle is the Olympic Stadium which will be hosting the athletics and stands out clearly from the buildings surrounding it, to the South East is the Maracanã Stadium which will stage the opening and closing ceremonies together with the finals of the football tournaments.

Image courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

Image courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

In the bottom left of the image is small triangular shape which is location for the Aquatics Stadium, Olympic Tennis Centre, the Gymnastic and Wheelchair basketball arena, and the Carioca arenas which will host basketball, judo, wrestling and boccia. The bottom of the triangle juts out into the Jacarepagua Lagoon.

Image courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

Image courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

In the top left of the image, you can see the runway of the military Afonsos Air Force Base and north of the air base are a number of other Olympic venues, however these are hard to spot within their surroundings – these include the Equestrian Centre, Hockey Centre, BMX Centre, Whitewater canoe slalom course and the Deodoro stadium which will host the Rugby 7s and modern pentathlon.

It is possible to see the Olympic venues from space! Good luck to all the athletics competing over the next few weeks.

Small businesses: Think big on marketing

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Courtesy of Caterham F1

We sponsored two Caterham Formula One cars in last weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which meant the Pixalytics name was circulating around the Las Marina track on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sponsoring an F1 car isn’t something a micro-businesses, like us, normally does; but as we described in last week’s blog this came through a crowdfunding opportunity.

We spent the weekend watching the television coverage to see if we could spot our name on the car; but the speed made it almost impossible. We knew where our name was, as you can see in the pictures, and a number of times we saw the white line of the text, but couldn’t make out individual the letters. We almost saw it in pit lane interviews, but the presenter’s leg was in the way! Whilst in the race the closest we came was a shot from Fernando Alonso’s car as he and Will Stevens, in the Caterham, raced down the straight; but everything was still a blur. So despite all this, was the sponsorship worth it? Absolutely!

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Using social media before, during and after the race we were able to get the message out about our sponsorship, this meant:

  • Much higher high profile on Twitter and LinkedIn, with a more impressions, views, retweets, favourites and clicks.
  • Increase web traffic for the days leading up to the race.
  • Comments and direct responses to last week’s blog were higher than normal.
  • Connections with new people and companies through the Caterham crowdfunding community.

This piece of promotion made a hugely positive impact on our profile, plus it was great fun too!

For a micro-business marketing can be a dreaded word. It’s the one thing that everyone knows they should do, but it’s often the thing that gets put off until tomorrow; contracts need to be delivered, invoices payments have to be chased and HMRC has to be paid. These are all far more pressing than marketing, right?

Wrong. Marketing is vital to developing a sustainable business. You need to make sure people know about your company, its products and services. Too often micro-businesses stick with the tried and tested; adverts, flyers, exhibiting and websites. All of these are important, but don’t forget to think big too!

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Courtesy of Caterham F1

Sure the large firms have more money, more time and more people, so you can be creative. Look for the unusual and the expected, and when you see an opportunity seize it. We found out about Caterham watching the television at home, and within an hour had taken the chance. Consider this quote from Richard Branson, a master of self-promotion.

“Don’t think what’s the cheapest way to do it or the fastest way to do it. Think what’s the most amazing way to do it!”

The next time you think about your marketing, don’t just do what you’ve always done. Think unusual, think unexpected, think different, think amazing, think big! You never know what opportunities you could seize!

Pixalytics Going 200 Miles An Hour

Landsat 8 Image of Abu Dhabi from the 10th November 2014. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Landsat 8 Image of Abu Dhabi from the 10th November 2014.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

One of the keys to growing a small business is to say yes a lot. It might be yes to a new contract, or yes to being part of a bidding consortium or yes to an unusual marketing opportunity. We’ve recently said yes to such a marketing opportunity, and this weekend our company name will adorn two Formula 1 cars as they compete in the final F1 Grand Prix of the season in Abu Dhabi. Pixalytics has sponsored an F1 racing team!

We’re part of the community that’s helped the Caterham F1 team to race in Abu Dhabi. Caterham F1 is based in Oxfordshire in the UK, and sadly went into administration in October 2014 resulting in them missing the races in Brazil and the USA. In November they started a crowd-funding initiative, using the Exeter based Crowdcube platform, to raise over £2M to enable them to race in Abu Dhabi.

A number of rewards were offered to those who supported the #RefuelCaterhamF1 project, and one of them caught our eye; we felt the opportunity to have our name on the car was an opportunity not to miss. As regular blog readers will know we are fans of Formula One and at the final Grand Prix of the season this weekend, our company name will appear on the tradebar on both sides of the two participating Caterham CT05 F1 cars. Hopefully during Thursday and Friday practice, Saturday qualifying and Sunday’s race, Pixalytics will be hitting speeds of almost 200mph and with a bit of luck, may be visible to an audience of billions.

An Earth observation company sponsoring an F1 team may not at first appear to be a natural fit, but Caterham is a British company working in the STEM sector, like us. We need highly skilled organisations like Caterham to thrive in this country, vibrant STEM companies are vital to encouraging the next generation to see the opportunities in these areas. There is a long way to go before Caterham even survives, especially with the recently announced redundancies, but we wanted to give them our support.

Early this year we wrote a blog about how we hadn’t been able to see the night-time Grand Prix in Singapore without using high resolution satellites. As soon as we knew we were going racing, the question raised its head again – could we see the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit from space? It takes place on the Yas Marina circuit, the circuit is five and half kilometres long, but it is a L-shaped loop with a footprint of about three kilometres.

After searching the Landsat 8 images archive, we found the image at the shown top of the blog from the 10th November 2014 where you can clearly see the circuit. What do you mean you can’t see it? It’s in the bottom left quadrant, about a third of the way in from the left and a third of the way up from the bottom. It is there!

Zoomed in Landsat 8 Image of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Circuit from the 10th November 2014. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Zoomed in Landsat 8 Image of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Circuit from the 10th November 2014.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

If  you are still to see it, it’s worth knowing the Yas Marina circuit has a second interesting feature. The circuit loops around the Ferrari World theme park and this building has a bright Ferrari red roof, making it easier to spot. You can see it  clearer in the zoomed in image on t right. but it is also in the image at the top.

Running your own business, or any business, is hard work. A lot of time is spent winning customers, completing contracts and worrying about cashflow and profit. Sometimes you have put the business aside, and take a moment to enjoy what you do. We’re doing that this weekend. Will we get new business out of our sponsorship? Unlikely. Will anyone see Pixalytics on the car? Probably not – unless the TV cameras zoom in! But for us, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to sponsor an F1 car. So watch the coverage over the weekend, and let us know if you see Pixalytics flying past.

Can Earth Observation answer your question?

The opportunities and challenges of utilising Earth observation (EO) data played out in microcosm in our house over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon, I was watching highlights of the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix which takes place on the harbour streets of Marina Bay and is the only night race of the season. To ensure the drivers can see, there are over 1,500 light projectors installed around the circuit giving an illumination of around 3,000 lux.

Whilst watching I wondered aloud whether we’d be able to see the track from space with the additional floodlights. My idle wondering caught Sam’s interest far more than the actual race and she decided to see if she could answer the question. The entire circuit is just over five kilometres long, but it’s a loop and so an approximate two kilometre footprint; any imagery would need a spatial resolution less than this. The final difficulty is that the data needed to be this weekend, as the circuit is only floodlit for the racing.

Within a few laps Sam had identified free near real time night data available from United States National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which covered the required area and timeframe. This was from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) using it’s Day/Night band with a 750m spatial resolution – this resolution meant we would not be able to see the outline of the track as it would be represented by only three or four pixels, but it would be interesting to see if we could identify the track feature. By the end of the race Sam had selected and downloaded the data, and so we could answer my question. However, it turned out to be not quite that easy.

VIIRS Singapore night time imagery, data courtesy of NOAA

VIIRS Singapore night time imagery, data courtesy of NOAA

NOAA data uses a slightly different format to the image processing packages we had, and we couldn’t initially see what we’d downloaded. Sam had to write some computer code to modify the packages to read the NOAA data. For anyone thinking this is an odd way to spend a Sunday evening, to Sam this was a puzzle to solve and she was enjoying herself! After some rapid coding we were able to view the image, but unfortunately the Saturday data wasn’t useful. On Monday we tried again, the Sunday race took place on a clear night and we’ve got a good image of the area, which you can see above. On the larger image you can clearly the Indonesian Islands with Jakarta shining brightly, up through the Java Sea where the lights of some ships are visible and then at the top of the image is Singapore; the zoomed in version of Singapore is the inset image.

Despite the floodlights used for the race, Singapore and some of the surrounding Malaysian cities are so bright at night that the additional lights simply contribute to the overall illumination, rather than making the track stand out. Hence the answer to my question is that the 2014 floodlit Singapore F1 street circuit can’t be distinguished from the surrounding area at this spatial resolution. Of course if we purchased high resolution imagery we may be able to see more detail, but we thought that was going a bit far for my idle wondering!

EO can answer questions like these quickly; and whilst we know not many businesses are dependent on whether the Singapore Grand Prix can be seen from space, but change this to what is the light pollution in your area, what is happening in terms of deforestation in the middle of the jungle, what phytoplankton are doing in the middle of the ocean or whatever question you might have, then EO might be able to provide the answer in a short space of time.

However, there are two main difficulties in getting the answer. Firstly, you’ve got to know where to find the data and secondly, what do with it when you get it. Currently this can be challenging without specialist knowledge, making it inaccessible for the general population. In the coming weeks, we’re going to write some blogs looking at the freely EO data available, and the easiest way of viewing it. Hopefully, this may to help you answer your own questions. In the meantime if you have questions you want answered, get in touch, we’d be happy to help.