Next Satellites Twins Ready For Launch

Illustration of the twin spacecraft of the NASA/German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) twin satellite mission is scheduled for launch on Monday, 21st May, from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It will be aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, alongside a number of commercial satellites.

As its name suggests, GRACE-FO is a follow on to the original GRACE mission which was launched in 2002 and reached end of life in November 2017. Both missions use innovative microwave measurement techniques to map deviations in the Earth’s gravity fields, which in turn enable changes in the oceans, ice sheets and land masses to be monitored. Both the original, and follow on, are joint missions between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ).

Each of GRACE-FO’s identical satellites weigh around 600 kg and measure approximately 3 m x 2 m x 0.8 m. They’ll be launched into low Earth circular polar orbits at around 490 km altitude, separated by between 170 and 270 km and to maintain this distance will require regular orbital moves during the mission life.

The essence of the mission is to constantly measure how far apart the two satellites are by sending microwave signals between them. This distance changes under the influence of the Earth’s gravity, by pulling the lead satellite away from its partner. Precisely measuring this, makes it possible map the changes in the Earth’s gravitation field. These changes are caused by the movements in water, ice and earth, and some examples with the GRACE datasets include:

  • Loss of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland
  • Seasonal changes in the Amazon basic
  • Loss of groundwater in California.

The key instruments on board GRACE-FO include:

  • Microwave Instrument (MWI): this sends K and Ka band microwave signals between the two satellites to precisely measure their distance apart. Its reported that they are accurate to one micron – the diameter of a blood vessel!
  • Laser ranging interferometer (LRI): This experimental instrument is an addition to the original GRACE mission and makes the same measurement as the MWI, but using lasers instead. It’s estimated that this could improve accuracy by at least a factor of 10.
  • Accelerometer: Measures the factors other than gravity affecting the satellite orbits.
  • GPS Receivers: Determine the exact position over the Earth to within a centimetre.

GRACE-FO will operate on a decaying orbit and so will not have constant repeating ground-track, but it should map the globe every thirty days. In addition, it will produce hundreds of daily profiles of temperature and water vapour.

GRACE produced some fascinating insights during its fifteen year mission; it had been hoped that the two missions would be in space together to allow for calibration between them, but this was not possible. Scientists are itching to get new data from GRACE-FO following the six month gap and it’s hoped that the new pair will provide further insights into how the world’s climate is changing, the loss of the ice sheets and monitoring how much water we’re currently using – all of which could have major impacts on our future!

Will You Have To Pay For Landsat Data?

Shetland Islands, Scotland. data acquired by Landsat 8 on 27 April 2014. Data courtesy of NASA/USGA.

Interesting discussions are taking place in the US on the position of free-to-access data which has the potential to affect everyone working in the downstream industry.

The US Government is once again exploring the possibility of reintroducing charges for accessing Landsat data. It was reported by the Landsat Advisory Group at the National Geospatial Advisory Committee meeting on the 3rd and 4th April 2018 that the Department of Interior asked them, last July, to look at whether the costs of Landsat could be recovered from its users.

It’s not the first time that this has been looked at since Landsat was made free-to-access in 2008. We’ve previously written about how free-to-access data, does not mean free data, but the lack of a usage charge saw an explosion in the use of this data. However, the political and industry backdrop is different this time. Anyone who has been following President Trump’s space policy will be aware of the shift in focus, and funding, away from Earth Observation (EO). Hence, the obvious appeal of recovering the costs from Landsat users to allow the programme to continue. It was reported at the NASA 2019 Budget Hearing last month that everything was on track for the launch of Landsat-9 in December 2020.

The Landsat Advisory Group reported it was working on three tasks in relation to this, which are due to be reported on later this year:

  1. Review the Landsat user community’s willingness-to-pay.
  2. Review the results of their previous paper ‘Statement on Landsat Data Use and Charges from 2012 and any other relevant studies looking at potential for users to pay.
  3. Update the results of 2011 study on The Users, Uses, and Value of Landsat and Other Moderate-Resolution Satellite Imagery in the United States.

At the last review, the Statement on Landsat Data Use and Charges produced a recommendation that Landsat data must continue to be distributed at no cost. There were a number of reasons given at the time including:

  • Severely restrict data use.
  • Cost more than the amount of revenue generated by the charges.
  • Stifle innovation and business activity that creates jobs.
  • Inhibit data analysis in scientific and technical fields.
  • Negatively impact international relations relating to national, homeland, and food Security.
  • Negatively impact U.S. standing as the leader in space technology.

Whilst a lot of these reasons are still relevant today, it’s undeniable that the industry landscape has changed in the last six years due to the expansion of commercial satellite providers. Part of the reason that Landsat, and other similar national satellites, were launched by originally government organisations is commercial operators did not have the relevant funding, capability or business model to do so. This has changed to a degree and last week in an article in they noted that 30 companies operating today who have launched, or have announced their intention to launch, EO satellites. These range from the high resolution Worldview satellites owned by DigitalGlobe, though Planet’s large cubesat constellation to the small specialist constellations such as ICEYE.

Governments are still the major buyers of commercial data, and as the amount of this data continues to increase it’s not surprise to see existing free-to-access business models being revisited. Not all of these changes are negative, for example, recent changes to the way ESA accesses third party missions, including from commercial suppliers, means startups and incubators can use this data for building services as they transition from research and development.

So if this happens and the US start charging for Landsat, does it matter? Well, yes it does!

Landsat has an unrivalled archive utilised by users across the globe and any fees will have negative implications for:

  • Encouraging the wider uptake of Earth Observation through schools and students which could harm the future generation of scientific researchers
  • Scientific research as scientists will potenitally go back to using smaller, or even the minimum necessary, data sets
  • Businesses who’ve developed services based on Landsat data, and we’d include ourselves in this group. Clearly, any costs of data will need to be passed onto clients and so this could change, or even destroy, business models.
  • See a switch from US Landsat to the EU’s Copernicus data as the go to free-to-access data source, meaning significant reduced time series options.

Whilst this has been discussed before, and the US have withdrawn from the edge, this time the world is different and everyone should be aware that there is a real potential that Landsat data could be charged for as early as next year. The satellite data industry could be about to have another twist. Are you ready?

Is China Becoming the Worlds Earth Observation Power?

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

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

Whilst Europe’s Earth Observation (EO) community was focussed on the successful launch of Sentinel-3B last week, you may have missed that it was also an exciting few days for the Chinese EO and space sectors.

On Thursday 26th April at 4.42 (GMT) China launched five EO satellites using the Long March 11 rocket at 4.42pm (GMT) from a mobile platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert.

The five small Zhuhai-1 remote sensing satellites were put into sun-synchronous orbits. Four of these satellites are reported to be carrying China’s first commercial hyperspectral cameras, with a spatial resolution of 10 metres. The fifth satellite carried a video camera with a spatial resolution of 90 centimetres, operating with a swath width of 22.5 km.

All of these satellites are owned by the Zhuhai Orbita Aerospace Science and Technology Co Ltd. The company plans to establish a constellation of 34 video, hyperspectral and other satellites to provide data for agriculture, land and water resources, environmental protection, geologic monitoring and transport. The next five satellites in the constellation are expected to be launched later this year.

Also last week, the 24th April was China’s third national Space Day with a theme of forging a new era of space development. As part of the event the first China Aerospace Conference was held in Harbin in China’s Heilongjiang Province, with reportedly over 2,000 people gathering to discuss space technology and introduce China’s latest space programs.

There were some interesting announcements coming out of the Conference, including:

  • Northern Chinese province of Shaanxi released a plan to create a 72 strong Cubesat constellation to provide rapid data for land surveying, environmental monitoring, disaster warnings, agriculture, forestry, and water conservation in Shaanxi. It hopes to launch the first two prototypes next June.
  • Queqiao was announced as the name of the satellite that will carry the Chang’e-4 lunar probe into a halo orbit of the moon. Queqiao, named after a magpie bridge from a Chinese folktale, will be launched in late May 2018 and the probe hopes to will be sent down to the surface around six months later. If successful, it will be the first exploration of the dark side of the moon.
  • China also announced plans to send a group of new satellites into orbit around 2020, including:
    • Water Cycle Observation Mission (WCOM) : Will simultaneously measure key parameters such as soil moisture, ocean salinity, and ocean surface evaporation.
    • Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE): Joint mission with Europe to focus on the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth magnetosphere.
    • Einstein-Probe will search for celestial bodies that emit X-rays during fierce changes.
    • Advanced Space-borne Solar Observatory (ASO-S) to monitor magnetic fields, flares, and coronal mass ejections.
    • Gravitational Wave Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor (GECAM) will search for electromagnetic signals associated with gravitational waves.
  • Launch of Gaofen-5 satellite is scheduled for 2nd May, from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre. This is part of the China High-resolution Earth Observation System (CHEOS) which includes multi-spectrum imaging and synthetic aperture radar satellites. Gaofen-5 is reported to have six instruments including a visible and short-wave infra hyper-spectral camera, spectral imager, greenhouse gas detector, atmospheric environment infrared detector at very high spectral resolution, differential absorption spectrometer for atmospheric trace gas, and multi-angle polarisation detector.

It’s clear that China has big plans for the space exploration and EO, and it soon could become the world leader in these fields – particularly if the data was made available more widely. No-one working in our community can ignore these developments and what potential future impact they may have.

Sentinel 3B Sets Forth

Copernicus Sentinel-3B satellite in its rocket ready to go to the launch pad.
Image courtesy of ESA–S. Corvaja.

The latest Sentinel satellite in the Copernicus programme, 3B, launched on the 25th April from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. Lift-off was at 18.57 (BST) and you could have watched the event live on the ESA broadcast.

Sentinel-3B is the twin to Sentinel-3A which was launched on the 16th February 2016. It has a launch weight of approximately 1 250 kg and following a flight of just under one and half hours, it should go into a near polar sun-synchronous orbit at an 814 km altitude.

The twin satellites are identical and carry four scientific instruments:

  • Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR) will measure temperatures of both the sea and land, to an accuracy of better than 0.3 K. This instrument has 9 spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 500 m for visible/near-infrared wavelengths and 1 km for the thermal wavelengths; and has swath widths of 1420 km at nadir and 750 km looking backwards. It’s worth noting that two thermal infrared spectral wavebands are optimised for fire detection, providing the fire radiative power measurement.
  • Ocean and Land Colour Instrument (OLCI) has 21 spectral bands (400–1020 nm) focussed on ocean colour and vegetation measurements. All bands have a spatial resolution of 300 m with a swath width of 1270 km.
  • Synthetic Aperture Radar Altimeter (SRAL) which has dual frequency Ku and C bands. It offers 300 m spatial resolution after SAR processing, and is based on the instruments from the CryoSat and Jason missions.
  • Microwave Radiometer (MWR) dual frequency at 23.8 & 36.5 GHz, it is used to derive atmospheric column water vapour measurements for correcting the SRAL instrument.

Once in orbit the two satellites will be separated by 140 degrees which will allow them to offer short revisit times – less than two days for the OLCI and less than a day at the equator for the SLSTR. The operational life of the satellite is seven years.

Italy and the Mediterranean captured by Sentinel-3A on the 28 September 2016.
Image, courtesy of and, contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2016), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Sentinel-3 is generally considered to be an ocean and coastal monitoring mission and its measurements include sea-surface height, sea surface temperature, ocean colour, surface wind speed, sea ice thickness and ice sheets. In the image to the left, it is interesting to note the sediment in water on the east coast of the Italy, in contrast to the mostly sediment free west coast.

As you can see from this image in addition to its primary focus on water, Sentinel-3 also provides measurements over land which includes the heights of rivers and lakes, water quality indicators, land cover change, vegetation indices and monitoring wildfires.

This is the seventh satellite in the Copernicus programme launched since 2014, and will complete the trio of twin satellites following the radar imaging Sentinel-1A & 1B and the optical imaging Sentinel 2A & 2B. The seventh satellite the singular Sentinel-5P which measures the atmosphere, although there a number of further Sentinel missions already planned. All the data from these satellites is free to access to anyone with a computer and a decent internet connection. You can download the data yourself, although there are an increasing number of websites online that will do a lot of the basic processing and visualising for you, meaning all you need to do is pick what you want to investigate. This is great for people new to satellite data and it enables them to get involved with Copernicus data without the need for any specialist skills.

This programme also offers companies, like Pixalytics, the opportunity to develop a range of products and services based on the data. We already have products using Sentinel-1, and are in the process of developing ones with Sentinel-2 and Sentinel-3. Exciting times in Earth observation!

We wish Sentinel-3B well as it sets forth on its journey!

Help Earth Day End Plastic Pollution

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean.” – Carl Sagan

Blue Marble image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7 1972.
Image Credit: NASA

Sunday, the 22nd April, is the globally celebrated annual Earth Day. The theme this year is ‘End Plastic Pollution’ within worldwide campaign celebrated by 192 countries being co-ordinated by the Earth Day Network.

2020 will mark the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day and the Earth Day Network are using this year as the launch of their End Plastic Pollution by 2020 campaign. They hope that this, alongside a number of other campaigns, will create a new consensus on how the planet should be cared for and managed. This year is dedicated to providing information, and crucially inspiration, to help everyone fundamentally change their approach to the use of plastics.

The shocking statistics behind plastic were highlighted in a paper by Geyer et al, published in Science Advances last July. This research highlighted that 7 900 billion tonnes of plastic had ever been produced up to the end of 2015, and half of this was in the previous thirteen years which demonstrating the growth in use of the product. The paper also noted that only 30% of the plastic produced is still in use and of the waste only 9% has been recycled.

As an Earth observation company we are passionate about showing everything that is happening to the planet and how it is changing.  The issue of plastic pollution of the ocean is one that is very close to our hearts. Sam began her career within the marine remote sensing community, a lot of work is based in the maritime environment and finally we’re based in the coastal town of Plymouth – home to Plymouth Sound, one of the world best natural harbours. We’re huge supporters of this campaign.

The issue of plastic pollution has captured public opinion in recent years, and a number of aspects have hit the headlines, including:

  • Reduction in the use of plastic bags: Local Devon town of Modbury was the first in the UK to ban plastic bags in 2007, and this was enhanced with the UK government action in 2015 to introduce charges for plastic bags.
  • Microplastics in the food chain:
  • Amazing images from the BBC Blue Planet series, narrated by David Attenborough.
  • Current pressure on drinks outlets to stop using straws and single-use coffee cups. Last year we got some straw straws, which we use at home!

There’s an interesting article on the problem of Plastic Pollution produced by sustainable swimwear company SLOactive, which has details on the five oceanic ‘garbage patches’, together with tips for reducing your own plastic pollution.

Earth Day has also developed a strategy, alongside a series of practical actions, to reduce the amount of plastic that litters the planet. This includes putting pressure of governments to regulate against plastic pollution, provide education materials and some practical actions and suggestions to enable companies and individuals to reject, reduce, reuse and recycle plastics.

The Earth Day website has information, quizzes, toolkits and calculators for:

  • Personal Journey: Having a look at your own personal use of plastics, and get information and tips on how you can reduce it.
  • Organisations: Examine how you use plastics and see how you might reduce your plastic footprint.
  • Education Materials: To help anyone who wants to help explain, educate and inspire people to reduce the amount of plastic that they use.

There are events going on around the world for Earth Day, and many are using the hashtags #EarthDay2018 and #EndPlasticPollution. Whilst these events are great to raise awareness, it is as much about everyone doing something individually.

What do you think? Is it worth it making changes on your plastic usage in 2018 and help Earth Day end plastic pollution by 2020?

Monitoring Antarctica’s Top & Bottom

Artists impression of CryoSat-2 in space. Image courtesy of ESA – P. Carril.

Two interesting pieces of scientific research this week have looked at the changing aspects of both the bottom and the top of the Antarctic continent. As the Antarctic ice sheet is the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet, it’s important that we understand what is happening to it as small changes in its mass may have significant implications for global sea levels.

We are going to look first at what is happening at the bottom of  Antarctica through a paper written by Konrad et al, titled ‘Net Retreat of Antarctic Glacier Grounding Lines’, published in Nature Geoscience Volume 11 and appeared online on the 2nd April 2018.

The grounding lines in the title refers to the point at which glaciers that end in the ocean leave the seabed and begin to float. Changes in the grounding lines can indicate ice-sheet instability. However, these points are often significantly under water and difficult to observe, which is where remote sensing can play a valuable role.

Researchers from the Centre for Polar Observations and Monitoring at the University of Leeds used satellite altimeter measurements from ESA’s CryoSat-2 mission alongside airborne surveys of ice geometry to produce a map of this boundary point. Cryosat-2 was launched on the 8th April 2010 and uses a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)/Interferometric Radar Altimeter, known as SIRAL. It sends out bursts of radar pulses, covering a 250 m wide strip of the Earth and measures the time of the return signal to determine the height of the satellite above the surface. It can detect millimetre changes in the elevation of both ice-sheets and sea-ice, and the researchers converted these surface elevation rates into rates of grounding line migration.

They found that between 2010 and 2017 the Antarctic lost 1 463 sq km of underwater ice. However, they did not find consistent loss across the continent. Whilst the retreat of Thwaites Glacier has sped up, at the neighbouring Pine Island Glacier the retreat seemed to have halted.

The work of Konrad et al is part of a wider body of research that has looked at the amount of ice mass loss from the Antarctic glaciers. However, there has not been the same focus on the increase in mass to the continent from snowfall, which historically had been assumed to be fairly constant.

Research by Thomas et al was presented at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2018, taking place in Vienna, Austria between 8th and 13th April, looking at this subject. The abstract titled Antarctic snow accumulation over the past 200 years was also published in the EGU journal Climate of the Past Volume 13, issue 11 under the titled ‘Regional Antarctic snow accumulation over the past 1000 years’.

In this work the team analysed 79 ice cores that had been drilled out from a variety of locations across the continent. By measuring chemical changes in the compacted snow within the cores they were able to determine that actually there has been a significant increase in snowfall in more recent times.

The researchers estimate that the amount of snow which fell on the continent each year during 2001-2010 was ten percent higher than the same period two hundred years ago in 1801-1810. These findings are in line with scientific expectations of climate change. As the Antarctic warms, there will be more moisture in the atmosphere and so there should be a greater snowfall.

These two pieces of research demonstrate the challenge of trying to measure and predict complex ecosystems like the Antarctic, where you have loss of ice mass which has to be assessed alongside the increase in snowfall. Currently, the ice loss is occurring at a faster rate than the increase from the snowfall and so the Antarctic continent is still shrinking!

Chinese Satellites Going Up, Chinese Satellite Coming Down

Satellites orbiting the Earth

Artist’s rendition of satellites orbiting the Earth – rottenman/123RF Stock Photo

It’s been a busy weekend for the Chinese space industry! On Saturday the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched three new high resolution Gaofen-1 optical Earth Observation satellites from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre in the north western Shanxi Province of China.

The three new satellites, called Gaofen-1: 02, 03 and 04 respectively, were launched into  sun-synchronous 645 km orbits at 03:22 GMT on the 31st March. They all carry two high resolution cameras, which are capable of acquiring multispectral data at eight metre spatial resolution, and this improves to around two metre resolution for the panchromatic band.

They are believed to be the next generation of the Gaofen-1 satellite which was originally launched on the 26th April 2013. It also carried the two high resolution cameras, but alongside had a wide field imager which is not included on the latest launches.

Saturday’s satellites will operate as a constellation offering a revisit time of two days, with the orbit repeating itself every fifteen days. However, for the foreseeable future, the constellation will also include the original Gaofen-1 satellite and will provide an impressive one-day revisit time and eleven day global coverage. The data from these satellites will be used for applications such as disaster warning, environmental monitoring, construction, transportation and emergency response.

The contrast to these launches was the re-entry of the Tiangong-1 space lab into Earth’s atmosphere on Monday 2 April at 00:15 GMT. Tiangong-1, which translates as Heavenly Palace 1, was originally launched on 29 September 2011. It had a two year operational lifecycle and has orbited the Earth unmanned for almost five years. During 2017, it was announced that the CNSA no longer had any control over Tiangong-1 and that it would gradually fall back to Earth over the coming eighteen months.

This satellite’s demise has caused a lot of public interest. Due in part to greater interest in space debris, but also due to the size and difficulty of determining exactly where it might fall to Earth!

End of life satellites falling back to Earth isn’t a rare occurrence, on average around one satellite each week enters our atmosphere and over a year this equates to around 100 tonnes of metal. The vast majority of this burns up in the atmosphere and apart from offering an interesting occasional fireball backdrop to the sky, it has no impact. Occasionally some of the debris does fall to Earth although most of this tends to be over water.

The difference here is size and mass. Tiangong-1 was 12 m long with a diameter of 3.3 m and had a launch mass of 8,506 kg – although obviously this will be less now.

Tracking space debris is becoming more and more important, and there were 14 space agencies/organisations, collectively known as the Inter Agency Space Debris Co-ordination Committee, tracking Tiangong-1 including NASA, ESA, European national space agencies, JAXA, ISRO, KARI, Roscosmos and the Chinese CNSA themselves.

Despite all of this effort focussed on Tiangong-1, it was very difficult for this group to forecast what debris might fall to Earth and where it might hit. Even when they confirmed entry, it was suggested that debris could hit somewhere in the South Pacific which is a very vague, and large, area.

Generally, it is being reported that most of the space lab burnt up in the atmosphere. However, despite all the effort placed tracking the object in space, there is no similar arrangement to track any debris that might reach the Earth’s surface and so no-one is sure how much, if anything, actually made it back. It may be the coming days, weeks or even months before we find anything that hit land and we may never know if it did hit the ocean.

This weekend just goes to show that the space industry is constantly changing.

Haring About During March

It has been a really busy month at Pixalytics with trips to multiple continents. We started with a trip to Bogata in Colombia for the kick off of a new project we’re engaged with, and we hope to tell you more about this soon. This was followed by a visit to Uganda for meetings and workshops relating to the Drought and Flood Mitigation Services (DFMS) project, which is part of the UK’s International Partnership Programme. We’re just over a year into the project, led by RHEATECH LTD, and we were demonstrating the first test version of the portal to both commercial and government users. The key to any beneficial system is to ensure that the solution developed is what the users want and need, and this was a great opportunity to gain feedback on the positive aspects of the system alongside a better understanding of required developments.

For me it was really exciting to show, and discuss, satellite imagery with the people from the local area. It was really useful to increase my understanding of what I was seeing from space, and we even managed to identify a couple of small water sources that not everyone knew existed!

Last week we attended two interesting and very different events. The first was the Flood & Coast 2018 Conference which took place in Telford. This was my first trip to this conference, and it was an interesting event. I gave a presentation about our portal and our intention to offer flooding products through it. It was part of a session called ”Technology & Innovation Presentations 2″ that took place at the end of the second day. Alongside us there were short talks on a diverse range of technologies including filter drains, rainfall capture and recycling, vegetated walls and mixed plastic recycling into building materials. My presentation seemed to go well as a number of people wanted to talk to me at the end. Unfortunately, the conference closed shortly after our session ended and so we all got ushered out. Apologies, if I didn’t get a chance to speak with you that day. Please get in touch, if you are interested in talking about anything further.

I went from Telford to London and the following day and attended the Economist Sustainability Summit 2018. The event focused on the need for a societal transition required towards sustainability, alongside the roles in the change that need to be played by governments, NGOs and commercial organisations.

For companies, there’s a need to work on solutions alongside providing leadership, which includes both the long term and showing consumers that their choices today can have an impact. Certainly, this topic has come to the public’s consciousness recently through the campaign’s relating to single use plastics and plastics in the ocean. Companies need to think about how to respond to these issues.

The other point that struck me was that the large institutions such as credit agencies, risk assessors, etc., described how changes in the climate are now classed as a ‘known about risk’ that they take this into account when making their assessments. Finally, there was a surprise to come across phytoplankton in the exhibition as Orsted had an interactive video globe showing both weather and Earth observation data.

March has been a really busy month. Looking forward to a few days of rest for Easter, and then onto April!

Blue Phase at Wavelength 2018

Blue John Cavern

Last week I attended the 2018 Wavelength Conference in Sheffield. This is an annual gathering for the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society (RSPSoc) and is geared towards PhD students and early career scientists. The conference aim is to provide a welcoming and constructive atmosphere to present research and progress towards PhD’s, coupled with a vibrant social programme.

This was my first experience of a remote sensing conference and the cosy nature of the common room where it was held alongside the lack of pressure of a larger event lent itself well to its ambition.

The topics covered by the research varied greatly, each with a focus on how to apply remote sensing and photogrammetry techniques in novel ways to better understand the world around us. These ranged from tracking whales to monitoring rice fields and developing systems to track small scale landslides.

One key technology which was popular among the presentations was the application of machine learning, the training of an artificial intelligence (AI) to classify images for a variety of purposes. Given it is something I’m becoming involved in at Pixalytics, every mention of AI attracted my attention. One presentation which stuck out for me was its application to track the effects of crude oil pollution in the Niger delta region. Harnessing remote sensing data and utilising the power of machine learning to sift through hundreds or even thousands of images, classify details and pick out objects of interest to monitor environmental damage is a novel approach. It provides a direct link from the science to a serious real-world issue. Whilst a localised case, the techniques demonstrated have the potential to better inform our responses to these issues which in turn will help people being affected by these disasters.

This application of science combined with the potential to one day help people resonated with me greatly. It reminded me of the work I am currently doing on the Drought and Flood Mitigation Service project which will aid the lives of Ugandan farmers.

Two keynotes were delivered during the conference, one by Dr. Alistair Graham, from Geoger Ltd, and one from the Chairman of RSPSoc Dr. Richard Armitage. Dr. Graham’s keynote was fascinating as he delivered his experiences working in a multitude of different environments from corporate to SME’s in industry to post doc positions in academia. He explained the nuances of working in each area and the possible paths for career progression open to PhD students and other early career scientists. I fall into the latter category, but the perspective he provided convinced me to keep my options open for the future. At a time when industry and academia is changing rapidly anything could happen.

Dr. Armitage’s keynote was on responsive remote sensing and his talk focused on how to use the right remote sensing data at the right time and for the right area. For the problems we come across, identifying the correct approach to take with remote sensing data is crucial.

For example, two important factors to consider for any problem are spatial resolution and data type. Some features require 5m to be visible, whereas for others the 30m resolution can show what is required. Further to consider is what type of data is best suited for the problem, optical data has its advantages but infra-red can reveal insights that optical data cannot. Having come across these points before the keynote, it served as a good reinforcement on the topic.

Blue John in the rock.

The highlight of the conference for me was the tour around Blue John cavern. Tucked away in the Peak District, surrounded by stunning views of the hills, the cavern is home to the famous Blue John stone. The tour guide was a miner who had worked in the cavern for 15 years and his knowledge on the tour was remarkable, making every stop ever more interesting.

Whilst a lot of walking and climbing was done, the colourful Blue John that spotted the walls of the cavern, together with the extremely high ceilings carved out by long gone rivers made for amazing views. If you don’t mind cramped spaces and traversing up and down a large mine, then Blue John cavern is a fantastic place to go!

For my first conference experience Wavelength 2018 was a fantastic introduction. The welcoming atmosphere, getting to see the diverse nature of remote sensing and photogrammetry research going on right now and the insightful keynotes will stick with me for a long time. I highly recommend any early career scientist or PhD student to attend the next incarnation of this conference.

Chris Doyle
Junior Software Developer
Pixalytics Ltd

It’s British Science Week!


Artist’s rendition of science – skovoroda/123RF Stock Photo

This week is British Science Week! It’s an annual event promoting science, technology, engineering and maths across the UK, and this year runs from the 9th to the 18th March.

Last year over one million people got involved, which is fantastic for encouraging and inspiring everyone to engage with science. This year there are a number of ways to participate:

Attending Events
Specific events are taking place all around the country and you can find them all here. There aren’t too many happening in Devon – something we’ll have to think about for next year!

We’d like to highlight the Family Fun Day happening next Saturday, 17th March, at the Norman Lockyer Observatory in Sidmouth. It is a great venue that we know well as Sam gave an Earth observation lecture there last year. On Saturday they will have hands-on activities, planetarium shows, solar and meteor observing amongst other things.

Citizen Science Project – The Plastic tide
This is our favourite activity this year as it’s remote sensing based! Its aim is to develop an automated classification algorithm to detect, identify and monitor marine litter from drone images.

Go onto the website, look at the images that appear and tag any marine litter that you see – it’s as easy as that! There are some guides and help from the team at Zooniverse who are developing the algorithm. I did my first fifteen minutes in the middle of writing this blog!

Everyone knows the problems of plastics in the oceans and the negative impact they have on pollution, wildlife and the food chain. This project is a fun and simple way for anyone to help clean our oceans and beaches. It is hoped that 250,000 images will be tagged during this week. Why don’t you contribute a few?

Run To The Deep – A virtual 10K Race
Run to the Deep is a free app which will accompany you whilst you run 10 000 metres to the ocean floor. It includes commentary from Pierre-Yves Cousteau, son of the marine conservationist Jacques Cousteau, and provides information about creatures, seascapes and things you’ll find deep in the ocean.

Schools Poster Competition
Schools are encouraged to get children designing posters on the theme of exploration and discovery, and enter the best ones into the national competition.

Download Activity Packs
There are downloadable activity packs available from the website for a variety of ages providing lots of exercises and activities promoting science, technology, engineering and maths.

British Science Week is run by the British Science Association (BSA) with funding from UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The origins of the BSA are fascinating, and have technology roots! In 1830 Professor Charles Babbage, one of the pioneers of computing, published ‘Reflections on the Decline of Science in England.’ It’s a fascinating read and one of the actions taken in response to this was the founding of the BSA in 1831, although at the time it was called the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Appropriately, also taking place this week in Sheffield is the 2018 Wavelength Conference, the student and early career scientist conference of the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society. Pixalytics sponsored this event and we hope to have a review of the conference in next week’s blog.

So whatever you are doing this week, try to include some science!