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!

UK Government View On ESA and Space Industry

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

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

This week we got a glimpse of the UK Government’s view on the space industry, with the publication of Satellites and Space: Government Response to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee’s Third Report of Session 2016/17. The original report was published in June and contained a series of recommendations, to which the Government responded.

The timing is interesting for two reasons:

  • Firstly, it comes just before the European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Council taking place on Thursday and Friday this week in Lucerne. We highlighted the importance of this meeting in a recent blog.
  • Secondly, it has taken the Government five months to respond, something the Committee themselves were disappointed with.

The Government’s response has a number of insights into the future for the UK space industry. The full report can be seen here, but we wanted to pick out three things that caught our eye:

ESA
For us, and the ESA Ministerial, the most interesting comment was that the Government reaffirmed that the UK will remain a member of ESA after Brexit. It also noted that “The UK’s investment in the European Space Agency is an important part of our overall investment in space, from which we obtain excellent value.” Whilst the level of financial commitment to ESA won’t become clear until the Ministerial, the mood music seems positive.

Earth Observation
The role of the Space for Smarter Government Programme (SSGP) was highlighted, particularly in relation to helping the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs use satellite data more. As part of SSGP we ran a successful Flood Mapping project during 2015/16. SSGP is running again this year, but given the importance placed on the programme on embedding space activities within Government it was disappointing not to see a further commitment beyond March 2017.

A business plan for a Government Earth Observation Service is currently being written, which is aimed at increasing the uptake of EO data within Government. We’ve not seen too much about this service yet, and will be very interested in the business plan.

Responding a question on harnessing the public interest in Tim Peake’s time in space, it was nice to see the work of the EO Detective highlighted. This is a fantastic project that raises awareness of the space industry in schools, and uses space/satellite imagery to help children explore topics such as climate change.

Small Satellites
“The Government intends to establish the UK as the European hub for low cost launch of small satellites.” It’s an interesting ambition; although it’s not completely clear what they mean by the term small satellites. As we described last week definitions are important.

On top of the three points above there were some words on funding for space related research; however these amounted to no more than an acknowledgement that various Government bodies will work together. There was also reference to the development of a new Space Growth Strategy, something we’ll talk more about in two weeks.

The Government’s response to this report was an interesting read, and whilst there are still a lot of unanswered questions it does hint at cautious optimism that they will support the space industry.

We were all on tenterhooks this week waiting the big announcements from the ESA Ministerial, and here are some of the headline outcomes:

  • Overall, ESA’s 22 member states plus Slovenia and Canada allocated €10.3 billion for space activities and programmes over the next five years. This includes an EO programme valued at €1.37 bn up until 2025.

Within this overall envelope, the UK has allocated €1.4 bn funding over five years, which equates to 13.5% of total. This includes:

  • €670.5 m for satellite technology including telecommunications, navigation and EO.
  • €376.4 m for science and space research
  • €82,4 m for the ExoMars programme.
  • €71 m for the International Space Station Programme
  • €22 m for innovate space weather missions

Our eye was, of course, drawn to the investment in EO and there is a little more detail, with the €670.5 m is:€60 m for the development of the commercial use of space data €228.8 m for environmental science applications and climate services through ESA’s EO programme, including:

  • Incubed – a new programme to help industry develop the Earth observation satellite technology for commercial markets
  • the Biomass mission to measure the carbon stored in the world’s forests
  • the Aeolus mission, measuring wind speed in three dimensions from space

Finally, it is worth noting Katherine Courtney, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, who commented, “This significant investment shows how the UK continues to build on the capability of the UK space sector and demonstrates our continuing strong commitment to our membership in the European Space Agency.”

Stellar Space Careers

ESA astronaut Tim Peake, tests his NASA spacesuit, at NASA's Johnson Space Center, USA. Image courtesy of NASA.

ESA astronaut Tim Peake, tests his NASA spacesuit, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, USA.
Image courtesy of NASA.

The UK space industry will get a publicity boost in the next month, as astronaut British Tim Peake goes into space on a five-month mission at the International Space Station (ISS). Being an astronaut is something many children dream about, although as less than six hundred people have ever gone into space it is a challenge to achieve. Working in the space industry on the other hand is something within the reach of everyone.

The space industry, often referred to as the space economy, includes space related services ranging from the manufacturing of spacecraft, satellites, ground stations and launch vehicles; through space-enabled applications such as broadcasting, navigation equipment and satellite phones; to user value-added applications such as Earth Observation (EO), meteorological services and broadband. The industry is worth £11.8 Bn to the UK economy and it’s growing at rate of just under nine percent per annum. It directly supports around 37,000 jobs, and indirectly another 100,000.

The shining star of the industry – irrespective of how much we promote EO scientists – will always be the astronauts. Tim will be the second British astronaut into space; our first, Helen Sharman, went up 1991. He was selected as a European Space Agency astronaut in 2009 and was chosen for his ISS mission in 2013. The next step is a launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakstan, in December.

Although we’ve said becoming an astronaut was difficult, it is not impossible. This week people were encouraged to apply to NASA to become an astronaut. Before you all rush off to send in your application, there are a few requirements:

  • You have to be a US citizen.
  • They are looking for pilots, engineers, scientists and medical doctors.
  • You’ll have to pass a long-duration spaceflight physical test.

If you want to become an astronaut, or indeed work in the space economy, education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects is crucial. Last week, at the Von Braun Symposium in America, they called for more STEM education and internships to encourage the next generation of the space workforce.

The European Space Education Resource Office in the UK (ERESO-UK) aims to promote the use of space to enhance and support STEM teaching, and they have set up a number of projects surrounding Tim’s mission and they are encouraging school participation. These include the EO Detective Competition to win a photograph from space during Tim’s mission, the Space to Earth challenge encouraging students to run, swim, cycle, climb, dance or exercise the 400 km distance from the Earth to the ISS and there are grants for innovative projects linked to Tim’s mission. The full details of all the projects can be found here.

The space economy is a wide and varied sector, it offers opportunities for anyone who wants to get involved. If you, or someone you know, is considering their first, or a change of, career, then go and whisper space in their ear. You never know, one of them may become an astronaut in the future!

Pixalytics is growing!

Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing CoverThe last week has seen two significant firsts for Pixalytics!

  • Our first book, Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing, has gone on presale!
  • Our first full time employee joined the company!

Right at the outset of establishing Pixalytics, we put down the DNA of the company we wanted to develop. Science is at the heart of Pixalytics, and we use our scientific knowledge to undertake research and development, provide products and services and to promote the scientific education and knowledge.

As part of that educational strand, we’ve written a book this year. It’s a book Sam has wanted to write for a long time, and takes people without any prior knowledge through the basic principles and science of remote sensing, gives them practical skills to undertake basic remote sensing at home and demonstrates the various applications where remote sensing can be used.

Sam quickly recognised that if she was going to write a general how-to book, she needed someone who knew nothing about the subject, which is where I came in. So together we co-wrote the book combining Sam’s 20 years of experience with my non-expert perspective of navigating through remote sensing for the first time. I have proof-read, tested and applied everything in the book; and so if I can learn remote sensing from it, anyone can!!

The book uses open source software as we wanted it to be as accessible as possible, and will be supported by a website offering news, updates, a learning forum and further exercises for people who’ve bought the book.

The book, Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing, is published by CRC Press of the Taylor & Francis Group. It went on pre-sale last week, and the actual paper copies are due to be shipped later this month. If you are interested you can order a copy here, or if you have any questions, please get in touch.

The second first for us is that we now have a full time employee, Dr Louisa Reynolds! Up until now Pixalytics has just been Sam and I, we’ve had the occasional short-term Erasmus student, PhD student, MSc placements and work experience people along the way, but not a full time employee. We’ve steadily grown the business over the last few years and we’ve reached the point where Sam no longer has enough hours in the day to do the work we have; although, Sam might say we reached that point a little while ago!

Hence, on Monday Louisa joined Pixalytics as an Earth Observation Scientist and brings with her strong skills in remote sensing, image processing, astrophysics, atmospheric and ocean physics. She will be providing support to Sam on all aspects of our Earth Observation and remote sensing work. This will significantly increase the capacity and capability of the company, which will hopefully lead to exciting new work in the future.

Overall, these are both major milestones for us and we’re delighted to welcome both Louisa and the Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing to Pixalytics.

Three years and beyond …

3rd BirthdayThe start of June marked the three-year anniversary of Pixalytics! Given that statistics indicate almost half of all start up businesses fail with the first three years, the fact that we are still here is a major success!

Not only that, but in the last twelve months we grew turnover a little, paid salaries for the whole year, didn’t take on any more debt and had our first employee – albeit a fixed term and part-time employee, but an employee nonetheless! All of which we considered to be achievements; however we want more.

As any small business owner knows, it’s very easy to get sucked into the treadmill of finding work, completing the work, getting paid and then going straight back to finding more work. You spend so much time working in the company, there isn’t any time to work on the company which is critical for growth and development. During the second half of 2014, we spent time working on Pixalytics.

We’re in a mentoring scheme where we are based and we’ve worked with our mentor, Phil Johnston, to better understand our business. Having the external critical friend asking the awkward questions isn’t easy, sometimes we couldn’t answer Phil, sometimes we didn’t want to answer Phil and sometimes we completely disagreed with Phil. However, all of his questions made us think harder about what Pixalytics was and how we wanted to develop it. By the end of 2014 we’d updated our company brand, marketing materials, website and our strategic thinking.

We’re a science company, and we like to experiment and see what happens. At the start of 2015 we were ready to start our growth strategy. So far this year, we’ve:

  • We’ve written a book! The Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing is due to be published in October/November 2015.
  • Exhibited for the first time at GEO Business 2015, and we’ll also be exhibiting at the 2015 UK Space Conference.
  • Expanded both our customer base and the services we offer.
  • Started developing new ways of interacting with our clients.
  • Forecasting growth this year in excess of 35%.

We still have a long way to go, to get to where we want to be; we need to continue to develop the customer base and the products we offer. Andy is spending more and more time within the business and this will continue to grow, but we’d like to get to the point of being able to employee someone else full time.

The first three years have been a huge learning curve, we’ve made some mistakes and there are certain things we’d do differently. We experiment and if things don’t work out; we remember the words of Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

We’re a growing small company, and we want to do all we can to make sure it stays that way for the next three years and beyond.

GEO Business 2015: Adding Value to Remote Sensing

Pixalytics-show preview imageTechnological developments have made it easier, faster and cheaper to launch a satellite, and have enhanced the capabilities of the sensors onboard. This has led to an ever-increasing quantity of available data. Also, there is recognition within the space industry that it’s no longer enough to launch something into orbit, the satellite customers need to also see how they’ll get value from the data it collects.

Our workshop session at GEO Business 2015 will focus on this issue. We’ll be describing the approach we take in ‘How to add value to remote sensing by applying cutting edge scientific research to create richer imagery and data’. Anyone who knows us, or who are regular blog readers, will know that science is firmly at the heart of Pixalytics. We believe Earth observation needs to go beyond the simple provision of remote sensing data or imagery, it should produce new, innovative and unique ways of utilising the terabytes of available data. Our approach includes:

  • Research & Development – Developing innovative techniques by applying new research methodologies, such as our product that measures water heights from space using altimetry data.
  • Repurposing – Using data for more purposes than originally intended, as is happening in the US where they are using ocean colour techniques for inland waters.
  • Merging Data Sets – Using remote sensing data combined with scientific, government or other open source data to produce more than is possible with just one data type.
  • Expanding Markets – Getting people who don’t use remote sensing to think about how they could use it within their businesses and organisations.
  • Blended Solutions – Developing automated processing for data extraction and downloading, which provides visualisation solutions whenever and wherever data is needed.

If you are at GEO Business on Thursday 28th May, our workshop will be taking place just before lunch at 12.30pm in Room F and it would be great to see you there.

Talking of GEO Business, we had a great response to last week’s blog on the things we’d learnt so far preparing for our first exhibition. We had a number of suggestions on how to measure success, which was the one thing we said we didn’t know last week! Interestingly, Elaine Ball Technical Marketing are running a Twitter chat on Thursday at 4pm relating to GEO Business, and one of their questions is looking at this issue of success. It will be good to see more thoughts on the topic.

We also got a lot of advice about exhibiting. The idea of taking a duster along was something we’ve have never thought of, but it seems so obvious when you think about it. The ‘rules’ of running a stand that people sent in made great reading; ensuring we don’t start working on the laptop and phones will be something we’ll have to be vigilant of!

Our stand kit is coming together, although we’re still holding our breath over a couple of promised deliveries. How the construction of the stand will come together is shrouded in a little mystery for us, but it will certainly make next Tuesday entertaining.

If any blog readers are around the Business Design Centre next Wednesday and Thursday, please come up and say hello, we’d love to meet you; and you will have the chance to win the free prize raffle we’ll be running on the stand. Hope to see you next week!

British Science Won’t Be Eclipsed

Hawthorn leaves opening in Plymouth on 18th March 2015

Hawthorn leaves opening in Plymouth on 18th March 2015

We’re celebrating science in this blog, as it’s British Science Week in the UK! Despite its name British Science Week is actually a ten day programme celebrating science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM). The week is co-ordinated by the British Science Association, a charity founded in 1831.

The British Science Association, like ourselves at Pixalytics, firmly believe that science should be at heart of society and culture and have the desire to inform, educate, and inspire people to get interested and involved in science. They promote their aims by supporting a variety of conferences, festivals, awards, training and encouraging young people to get involved in STEM subjects.

British Science week is one of their major annual festivals, and has hundreds of events running up and down the country. The website has a search facility, so you can see what events are running locally. Down here in Plymouth, the events include Ocean Science at The National Marine Aquarium, tomorrow at Museum & Art Gallery learn about the science behind the headlines and on Saturday, also at the Museum, an animal themed day including some real mini-beasts from Dartmoor Zoo – the place that inspired the 2011 film ‘We Bought A Zoo’, which starred Matt Damon and Scarlett Johnansson.

If you can’t get to any of the events in your local area, British Science Week is also promoting two citizen’s science projects:

  • Nature’s Calendar run by the Woodland Trust, asking everyone to look out for up to six common natural events to see how fast spring is arriving this year. They want to be informed of your first sightings of the orange tipped butterfly, the 7-spot ladybird, frog spawn, oak leaves, Hawthorn leaves, and Hawthorn flowers. This will continue a dataset which began in 1736, and we thought the Landsat archive was doing well.
  • Worm Watch Lab – A project to help scientists better understand how our brain works by observing the egg laying behaviour of nematode worms. You watch a 30 second video, and click a key if you see a worm lay an egg. We’ve watched a few and are yet to see the egg laying moment, but all the video watching is developing a lot of datasets for the scientists.

If you are interested in Citizen Science and go to sea, why not get involved in the citizen science work we support, by taking part in the Secchi Disk Project. Phytoplankton underpin the marine food chain and is particularly sensitive to changes in sea-surface temperatures, so this project aims to better understand their current global phytoplankton abundance. You do this by lowering a Secchi disk, a plain white disk attached to a tape measure, over the side of a boat and then recording the depth below the surface where it disappears from sight. This measurement is uploaded to the website and helps develop a global dataset of seawater clarity, which turn indicates the amount of phytoplankton at the sea surface. All the details on how to get involved are on the website.

On Friday, nature is getting involved by providing a partial solar eclipse over the UK. Starting at around 8.30am the moon will take about an hour to get to the maximum effect where the partial eclipse will be visible to the majority of the country – although the level of cloud will determine exactly what you see. Plymouth will be amongst the first places in the country to see the maximum effect around 9.23am – 9.25am, however the country’s best views will be on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland with a 98% eclipse predicted. The only two landmasses who will see a total eclipse will be the Faroe Islands and the Norwegian arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The last total eclipse in the UK was on the 24th August 1999, and the next one isn’t due until 23 September 2090!

Although the eclipse is a spectacular natural event, remember not to look directly at the sun, as this can damage your eyes. To view the eclipse wear a pair of special eclipse glasses, use a pinhole camera or watch it on the television!

We fully support British Science Week, it’s a great idea and we hope it will inspire more people to get involved in science.

34th EARSeL Symposium

Last week I attended the 34th Symposium of the European Association of Remote Sensing Laboratories, known as EARSeL, in Warsaw, Poland. Originally formed in 1977, EARSeL is a scientific network of academic and commercial remote sensing organisations. It aims include:

  • promoting education and training related to remote sensing and specifically Earth Observation (EO),
  • undertaking joint research projects on the use, and application, of remote sensing,
  • providing governmental, and non-governmental organisations, with a network of remote sensing experts.
EARSeL Bureau Handover Warsaw 2014

EARSeL Bureau Handover
Warsaw 2014

EARSeL is run by a Council of elected national representatives and an executive Bureau, elected by the Council. For the last year I have been proud to serve on the EARSeL executive Bureau as Treasurer for the organisation.  My term of office finished at the symposium, and I’d like to wish the new Bureau a successful year.

In addition I was also the co-chair and presenter for the Oceans & Coastal Zones session on the Monday afternoon and on the Wednesday I taught a session on ‘Introduction to optical data processing with BEAM’ as part of the joint EARSeL & ISPRS (International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing) Young Scientist Days which ran alongside the symposium.

For me the promotion of science generally, and specifically Earth Observation (EO), is an integral part of running Pixalytics. I want to support more people to understand and get involved; in particular, it’s vital that we educate and inspire the early career, and next generation, scientists.

It’s for these reasons that I enjoy working with, and being part of, organisations that are working to inform, educate and promote similar scientific aims. As well as EARSeL treasurer, I was also the Chair of the UK Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society (RSPSoc) for three years, and I’m currently vice-chairman of the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies (BARSC).

It can be challenging to balance the income earning side of Pixalytics with the volunteering side, but it’s worth it. There is a real case for businesses getting their employees to volunteer to support work outside of the company, whether it’s industry promotion, teaching or helping support social issues in the local community. Aside from the obvious support for the cause they are volunteering for, it can also help develop skills in time management, decision-making and leadership.

I’ve learnt a huge amount working with the different organisations, as well as developing skills I’ve met people outside my specialism and have strengthened by business network.  I have no intention of stopping volunteering, and I’ve always got one eye out for new opportunities. Volunteering can add value to your company, however large or small, and I’d recommend all organisations should consider the opportunities this could provide for them and their employees.