Brexit Biting for UK Space Industry

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

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

UK companies involved in European Commission space programmes face an uncertain future according to media reports over the last week. The Financial Times reported that the European Commission wanted two key clauses in the contracts for work on the next part of the €10 bn Galileo Satellite Navigation System. These would allow the Commission to:

  • Cancel the contracts, without penalty, of any supplier who is no longer based in an European Union (EU) member state; and then
  • Charge that supplier all costs associated with finding their replacements.

Clearly, this poses a huge risk to UK companies given the fact that the UK has indicated its intention to leave the EU in 2019 by triggering Article 50. We wrote about the potential impacts of Brexit last year, and whilst we did pick up concerns over Galileo we didn’t see this coming!

Should the UK Space Industry be concerned?
Yes!

Despite reports to the contrary, this does not mean we are leaving the European Space Agency (ESA). We are very much remaining part of ESA, something that was confirmed at the ministerial in December. This solely relates to programmes owned, and funded, by the European Union (EU). However, it is concerning for two key reasons:

  • Anyone who has tried to negotiate contract terms with large governmental organisations will be aware that it tends to be a binary take it or leave it scenario. Therefore, if these clauses are in the contract, then it is highly likely companies will have to sign up to them to get the work.
  • It may not just be Galileo, the Copernicus Programme could be next. Copernicus is also an EU programme, and therefore it has to be a possibility that they may apply the same clauses to future Copernicus tenders. Galileo isn’t something Pixalytics is involved with, but if this was extended to Copernicus we’d be potentially impacted and would need to make choices.

What Can UK Companies Do?
The options are limited:

  • Bid anyway! Accept the potential financial risk, or hope that it will get resolved within the various Brexit negotiations. Given the size of these contracts, it will be a brave CEO who goes down this route.
  • Not bidding for any Galileo contract is probably the financially prudent option, but equally it removes a significant revenue stream.
  • Move to another European Country. I think there will be a number of companies who will be looking at moving some, or all, of their operations to another EU member state.

Any Causes For Optimism?
Not really, but there are tiny strands of hope.

  • Security – A key issue with Galileo is security. Currently, all EU members have agreements on security and when the UK leaves the EU, it leaves that agreement. Of course, security is just one of hundreds of agreements the UK will be hoping to discuss with the EU through Brexit negations. If security agreements are reached with the UK, maybe the position will change.
  • UK Election – Whilst writing this blog, the UK Prime Minister has announced a General Election in June. Parliamentary changes may influence the type of Brexit we have, but again it is highly unlikely.

It was fairly obvious, despite the contrary political rhetoric, that Brexit would have huge consequences on the UK’s relationship with Europe.

The UK’s space industry looks as though it will be at the forefront of those consequences. Forget 2019, the bite of Brexit is being felt today!

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!

Supporting Uganda’s Farmers

Map of Uganda showing vegetation productivity. Underlying data is the MODIS 2014 NPP Product, MOD17 – Zhoa et al. (2005).

Uganda is a landlocked country of just over 240,000 square kilometres. Agriculture is a key element of the country’s economy and was responsible for 23% of gross domestic product in 2011 and almost half the country’s exports the following year. According to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 80% of the population relies on farming for its livelihood.

It has an equatorial climate, with regional variations, although recent recurrent dry spells have impacted on crop and livestock productivity. Pixalytics is delighted to be part of a consortium led by the RHEA Group, working with the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment and local NGOs to develop a Drought and Flood Mitigation Service (DFMS) to give practical information to help local communities respond to the effects of climate change.

Using computer models populated with satellite, meteorological, water resources and ground based data an innovative Environment Early Warning Platform will be developed to provide Ugandan farmers, via local NGO organisations, with forecasts throughout the growing seasons to enable them to take actions to maximise their crop yield.

Pixalytics, along with fellow consortium member, Environment Systems, are responsible for the Earth Observation data in the project. We’ll be looking at variety of optical and radar data to provide information about flood and drought conditions alongside crops and their growing conditions.

The project should benefit local communities by:

  • Improving the ability to forecast and mitigate droughts and floods on a local actionable scale.
  • Allowing NGOs to target resources saving time, money and lives.
  • Allowing farmers to improve their lives and better protect their livestock and crops.

Alongside ourselves, and RHEA Group, our consortium includes Environment Systems, Databasix, AA International, AgriTechTalk International, HR Wallingford, UK Met Office, Mercy Corps, and Oxford Policy Management. We will also work with international partners, including the Uganda Government Ministries, Kakira Sugar Company, and the NGO Green Dreams/iCOW. The first of a number of visits to Uganda took place last week, where we had the opportunity to make lots of local contacts and meet some of those whom we hope to benefit from this work.

This work is part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme and ours is one of 21 projects chosen to provide solutions to local issues in counties across Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

This is a really exciting project to be involved with, and we’re looking forward to providing useful information to local farmers to allow them to take real and meaningful action to enhance the productivity, and protection, of their livestock and crops.

Outstanding Science!

It’s British Science Week! Co-ordinated by the British Science Association (BSA) and funded by the UK Government through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it’s a celebration of science, engineering, technology and maths – often referred to as STEM.

The week runs from 10th to the 19th March which technically makes it a ten day festival – a slightly concerning lack of precision for a celebration of these subjects! There are events taking place all over the UK, and you can see here if there are any local to you. For us, there are nine events taking place in Plymouth. Highlights include:

  • Be a Marine Biologist for A Day running on the 16th and 17th at the Marine Biological Association
  • Science Week Challenge – Cliffhanger: On 17th of March teams of students from Secondary Schools across Plymouth will compete to design and build a machine to solve a problem.
  • Dartmoor Zoological Park running a STEM careers day. Although, sadly you’ve already missed this as it took place on Tuesday!

All of these, and the many others across the country, are fantastic for promoting, educating and inspiring everyone to get involved with STEM subjects and careers. Regularly readers know this is something that we’re very keen on at Pixalytics. Eighteen months ago we published a book, ‘Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing’, which aims to take complete beginners through the process of finding, downloading, processing and visualising remote sensing satellite data using just their home PC and an internet connection.

We were delighted to find out recently that our book has been chosen an Outstanding Academic Title (OAT) of 2016 by Choice, a publication of the Association of College & Research Libraries, a division of the American Libraries Association.

OAT’s are chosen from titles reviewed in Choice over the last year, and selected books demonstrate excellence in scholarship, presentation and a significant contribution to the field. The reviewer’s comments are integral to this process. Someone from San Diego State University reviewed our book last August and their comments included:

  • ‘a unique approach to the presentation of the subject’
  • ‘This book is successful in achieving its aim of making the science of remote sensing accessible to a broad readership.’
  • ‘Highly recommended. All library collections’

OAT’s are a celebration of the best academic books and Choice selected 500 titles out of 5,500 they reviewed last year. We’re very proud to have been included in this list.

Everyone can, and should, get involved in science. So why not go to one of the British Science Week events local to you, or if not you could always read a book!

Plymouth Student’s Shot at Space!

From left to right: Fraser Searle (President), Sam Kennerley (Secretary) of Plymouth University Space Society, with the equipment to launch the balloon.

Plymouth University’s Space Society plans to send a small bottle of gin ‘into space’ attached to a weather balloon at the end of March.

The aim is to send the bottle 100,000 feet above the Earth, equivalent to 30 kilometres, and then bring it back safely. On its return, in true student fashion, they intend to use it to drink a few ‘space cocktails’!

The idea for launching the weather balloon began last summer when Fraser Searle and Nick Hardacre, who lead the Space Society at Plymouth University, were looking for ways to create interest in space in the local community. They originally hoped to send a bottle of local gin up, but soon found the challenges of working in a sub zero environment. It would have taken a balloon one and half times the size of the current one and double the volume of helium, so they changed to the shot glass.

They’ll also be attaching cameras and tracking equipment to the six metre diameter balloon to record and monitor the journey. The students have a roller coaster of emotions at the moment as Fraser explained, “We’re feeling excited, but I do get waves of nerves as to whether the glass and the cameras will return unharmed. We’re also wondering if the pictures and videos will be clear.”

Technically, the weather balloon won’t get into space. It should reach the upper half of the stratosphere, an area known as near space. As this area stretches from 20km to 100km above the Earth, ‘near’ is a relative term.

Pixalytics got involved with the project before Christmas, when we helped with sponsorship to enable the students to finish purchasing the necessary equipment. We’re also hoping to provide support in reviewing and interpreting the images the cameras collect on the journey. It’ll be interesting to compare what the weather balloon sees, with what various satellite imagery shows.

We’re strong supporters of events that encourage students and early career scientists to enhance their understanding of remote sensing, space and science. We sponsor student conferences and prizes that take place in the UK. So, it’s fantastic to get involved in something much closer to home.

Launching a weather balloon requires permission from the Civil Aviation Authority, and is also highly weather dependent. A planned launched at the end of January had to be abandoned as the balloon was likely to end up in Portsmouth or Calais harbour.

However, the team have once again got the relevant permissions to try again this coming week. The exact launch date will depend on the wind and weather patterns around Plymouth, which are always fairly turbulent. Fraser said, “We’ll be glued to the online predictors to find a launch slot.”

This is great local project for Plymouth, and we’re pleased to be able to support it. We have our fingers crossed for suitable weather, but only time will tell if they manage to conquer space!

Goodbye to EO-1

Hyperspectral data of fields in South America classified using Principle Components Analysis. Data acquired by Hyperion. Image courtesy of NASA.

In contrast to our previous blog, this week’s is a celebration of the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite whose death will soon be upon us.

EO-1 was launched on the 21st November 2000 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. It has a polar sun-synchronous orbit at a height of 705 km, following the same orbital track as Landsat-7, but lagging one minute behind. It was put into this orbit to allow for a comparison with Landsat 7 images in addition to the evaluation of EO-1’s instruments.

It was the first in NASA’s New Millennium Program Earth Observing series, which had the aim of developing and testing advanced technology and land imaging instruments, particularly related to spatial, spectral and temporal characteristics not previously available.

EO-1 carries three main instruments:

  • Hyperion is an imaging spectrometer which collects data in 220 visible and infrared bands at 30 m spatial resolution with a 7.5 km x 100 km swath. Hyperion has offered a range of benefits to applications such as mining, geology, forestry, agriculture, and environmental management.
  • Advanced Land Imaging (ALI) is a multispectral imager capturing 9 bands at 30 m resolution, plus a panchromatic band at 10 m, with a swath width of 37 km. It has the same seven spectral bands as Landsat 7, although it collects data via a different method. ALI uses a pushbroom technique where the sensor acts like a broom head and collects data along a strip as if a broom was being pushed along the ground. Whereas Landsat operates a whiskbroom approach which involves several linear detectors (i.e., broom heads) perpendicular (at a right angle) to the direction of data collection. These detectors are stationary in the sensor and a mirror underneath sweeps the pixels from left to right reflecting the energy from the Earth into the detectors to collect the data.
  • Atmospheric Corrector (LAC) instrument allows the correction of imagery for atmospheric variability, primarily water vapour, by measuring the actual rate of atmospheric absorption, rather than using estimates.

The original EO-1 mission was only due to be in orbit only one year, but with a sixteen year lifetime it has surpassed all expectations. The extension of the one year mission was driven by the Earth observation user community who were very keen to continue with the data collection, and an agreement was reached with NASA to continue.

Psuedo-true colour hyperspectral data of fields in South America. Data acquired by Hyperion. Image courtesy of NASA.

All the data collect by both Hyperion and ALI is freely available through the USGS Centre for Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS). At Pixalytics we’ve used Hyperion data for understanding the capabilities of hyperspectral data. The two images shown in the blog are a subset of a scene acquired over fields in South America, with image to the right is a pseudo-true colour composite stretched to show the in-field variability.

Whereas the image at the top is the hyperspectral data classified using a statistical procedure, called Principle Components Analysis (PCA), which extracts patterns from within the dataset. The first three derived uncorrelated variables, termed principle components, are shown as a colour composite.

Sadly, satellites cannot go on forever, and EO-1 is in its final few weeks of life. It stopped accepting data acquisition requests on the 6th January 2017, and will stop providing data by the end of February.

It has been a great satellite, and will be sadly missed.

Have you read the top Pixalytics blogs of 2016?

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

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

As this is the final blog of the year we’d 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!

It turns out that seven of the ten most widely viewed blogs of the last year weren’t even written in 2016. Four were written in 2015, and three were written in 2014! The other obvious trend is the interest in the number of satellites in space, which can be seen by the titles of six of the ten most widely read blogs:

We’ve also found these blogs quoted by a variety of other web pages, and the occasional report. It’s always interesting to see where we’re quoted!

The other most read blogs of the year were:

Whilst only three of 2016’s blogs made our top ten, this is partly understandable as they have less time to attract the interest of readers and Google. However, looking at most read blogs of 2016 shows an interest in the growth of the Earth Observation market, Brexit, different types of data and Playboy!

We’ve now completed three years of weekly blogs, and the views on our website have grown steadily. This year has seen a significant increase in viewed pages, which is something we’re delighted to see.

We like our blog to be of interest to our colleagues in remote sensing and Earth observation, although we also touch on issues of interest to the wide space, and small business, communities.

At Pixalytics we believe strongly in education and training in both science and remote sensing, together with supporting early career scientists. As such we have a number of students and scientists working with us during the year, and we always like them to write a blog. Something they’re not always keen on at the start! This year we’ve had pieces on:

Writing a blog each week can be hard work, as Wednesday mornings always seem to come around very quickly. However, we think this work adds value to our business and makes a small contribution to explaining the industry in which we work.

Thanks for reading this year, and we hope we can catch your interest again next year.

We’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and a very successful 2017!

High Noon for ESA Funding

Sentinel-2 Image of Plymouth from 2016. Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

Sentinel-2 Image of Plymouth from 2016. Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

The future direction of the space industry in Europe is set to be debated at the European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Council taking place at the start of December. It will look at the Space Strategy for Europe which we reviewed last week, and crucially will set ESA’s budget for the few next years.

The Council is the governing body of ESA and each of the 22 member states is represented, plus Canada. The Council is chaired by ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner, and he gave a press briefing in Paris earlier this week in advance of the meeting.

Sadly, I was unable to go to France for the meeting; but luckily Peter B de Selding from Space News was there and produced an excellent article which highlighted the key points including:

  • ESA is seeking an €11 billion settlement
  • Concern over the Norway’s proposed 75% contribution reduction
  • The ExoMars Programme, which hit the headlines earlier this year when the Schiaparelli lander crashed on its descend to the Mars surface, has a funding gap of €400 million.
  • €800 million is being sought to continue the collaboration with NASA on the International Space Station until 2024

The headline message on money is clearly the requested €11 billion settlement. In 2016 the ESA budget was €5.25 billion, of which almost 30% was income from the European Union (EU), Eumetsat and other programmes. The remaining 70% came from the contributions of each member state and Canada, and it is these future contributions that will be discussed at the Ministerial. This year the biggest contributor was Germany (€872.6 m), followed by France (€844.5 m) and Italy (€512 m) – between them these three accounted for almost 60% of the ESA member state budget.

For us, Pixalytics and the UK, there were a couple of interesting points. Firstly, ESA’s Earth Observation Envelope Programmes (EOEP-5) has had a 12.5% funding cut reducing their budget down to €1.4 bn for the period 2017 – 2025. It’s not currently clear what impact this reduction will, or will not, have on existing and planned activities.

Secondly, and for the second week running the blog has had to mention the B word. We’ve previously written about the fact that ESA and the EU are different organisations, and that Brexit does not directly impact our involvement with ESA – a point reinforced by the Director General at the briefing.

Indirectly though, Brexit impacts, if not dominates, the political and financial landscape of the country and as such will have affected the discussions surrounding our ESA contribution commitment. For example:

  • Dropping Value Of Sterling: The pound has dropped by over 13% since the EU Referendum, significantly increasing the cost to the UK of our ESA contribution which was €13.2 m in 2016.
  • Budget Pressures: In addition to the drop in the pound, the UK Space Agency has to compete with every other Government Department for funding. Given the current austerity financial approach, coupled with the additional costs of dealing with Brexit, money is tight.
  • Space Industry Profile: Every industry is currently fighting to get their agenda’s onto Government Minister’s desk to ensure they get then ‘best deal from Brexit’. Space is no different. We may not have the London centre of the financial sector or the emotional impact of the farmers and fisherman, but we are a strong and important part of the economy.

We need Ministers to understand our industry, and to ensure that they support us as much as possible. This means, as we said last week, that we need to give a positive commitment to our ongoing involvement with ESA and a strong financial contribution at the Ministerial in Lucerne on the 1st and 2nd of December.

We await the outcome with interest!

Ten Top Tips Learnt Working for a Small Remote Sensing Company

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

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

I am approaching the end of my year at Pixalytics, and this blog is summary of what I’ve learnt from working for a small commercial remote sensing company.

The work itself has been a real blessing for me. Remote sensing product development was just the role I had been looking for, so I took it on with relish. During the year I have spent time researching, and supporting the product development of, flood mapping using SAR imagery, vegetation time series and light pollution.

I’ve learnt a huge amount over the past twelve months, and here are my top ten tips on researching & developing remote sensing products:

  1. Keep in mind who your stakeholders are and exactly what they require.
  2. Ensure your ground site is really covered by the satellite image, as coverage tends to be diagonal rather than straightforward latitude and longitude square and can miss a site altogether.
  3. Practise program version control at all times!
  4. Check the images you are using are the best ones for your requirements, i.e., not 16 day composites when daily images are more suitable and available; stopping you wasting a day downloading the wrong images!
  5. Write down problem solving routines, so next time you can do it for yourself!
  6. It’s always important to run pilots and streamline programming. This will save time and effort, and help verify that your end product is statistically robust.
  7. Write down what you find and keep good records of your algorithms and programming, so that you don’t duplicate work.
  8. Write technical notes on your work, so that programs can be easily shared, reviewed and run by others.
  9. Allow sufficient time before deadlines for reviewing and reworking.
  10. Make notes on the data you are using as you go along, including source, dates, locations and any company/organisation credits needed.

These are all lessons I’ll be taking with me when I leave, whether in commerce or academia.

It’s also been an insight into how a business is run, via these activities and hearing (one side!) of Sam’s teleconferences. Plus I’ve been involved in valuable encounters with the Environment Agency on products and have attended conferences, and given a presentation at one, on behalf of Pixalytics.

Plymouth has also been fun to explore. I’ve enjoyed visiting the various arts venues all over the city together with the galleries and museums, festivals and excellent cuisine.

Many thanks to Sam and Andy at Pixalytics for giving me this opportunity. I’m sad to leave and have enjoyed my time here.

Blog written by Dr Louisa Reynolds.