Looking To Earth Observation’s Future

Artist’s view of Sentinel-3. Image courtesy of ESA–Pierre Carril.

The future is very much the theme for Earth Observation (EO) in Europe this week.

One of the biggest potential impacts for the industry could come out of a meeting that took place yesterday, 7 November, in Tallinn, Estonia as part of European Space Week. It was a meeting between the European Union (EU) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to discuss the next steps for the Copernicus programme beyond 2020. This is important in terms of not only continuing the current Sentinel missions, but also expanding what is monitored. There are concerns over gaps in coverage for certain types of missions which Europe could help to fill.

As an EO SME we’re intrigued to see the outcomes of these discussions as they include a focus on how to leverage Copernicus data more actively within the private sector. According to a recent Industry Survey by the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC), there are just over 450 EO companies operating in Europe, and 66% of these are micro companies like Pixalytics – defined by having less than ten employees. This rises to 95% of all EO European companies if you include small businesses – with between 10 and 50 employees.

Therefore, if the EU/ESA is serious about developing the entrepreneurial usage of Copernicus data, it will be the small and micro companies that will make the difference. As these companies grow, they will need high skilled employees to support them.

Looking towards the next generation of EO scientists, the UK Space Agency announced seven new outreach projects this week inspire children to get involved in space specifically and more widely, to increase interest in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. The seven projects are:

  1. Glasgow Science Festival: Get me into orbit!
  2. Triathlon Trust: Space to Earth view
  3. Mangorolla CIC: Space zones ‘I’m a Scientist’ and ‘I’m an Engineer’
  4. Institute for Research in Schools: MELT: Monitoring the Environment, Learning for Tomorrow
  5. The Design and Technology Association: Inspiring the next generation: design and technology in space
  6. European Space Education Resource Office-UK: James Webb Space Telescope: Design challenge
  7. Children’s Radio UK (Fun Kids): Deep Space High – UK Spaceports

There will be a total of £210,000 invested in these. We’re particularly excited to see the MELT project which will get students to use EO data to analyse what is happening at the two poles.

Each of these elements will help shape the EO industry in this country. With the UK committed to remaining within ESA, decisions on the future of the Copernicus programme will provide a strong strategic direction for both the space and EO industries in Europe. Delivering on that direction will require the next generation workforce who will come from the children studying STEM subjects now.

Both the strategic direction, and associated actions to fulfil those ambitions, are vital for future EO success.

Pixalytics: Five Years & Thriving!

Background Image: Sutichak Yachaingham / 123 Stock Photo

The start of June marked the five-year anniversary of Pixalytics!

For a small start-up business, like ours, five years is an important milestone. Depending on which you report you believe only around 50%, or even 40%, of new small business survive their five years! So we should definitely celebrate the fact that we’re still here!

The last twelve months have been successful for us. Our key highlights have included:

  • Continuing to grow our income year-on-year
  • Expanded our team to five, soon to be six, employees – which is a 100% increase over the last year!
  • Moved to a new office on Plymouth Science Park
  • Part of a consortium developing a Drought and Flood Mitigation Service (DFMS) in Uganda.
  • Secured our first European Contract and so now we are exporters!

It has been a lot of hard work, but we’re really pleased with what we’ve achieved.

In a similar blog last year, we wrote about our target of releasing an innovative series of automated Earth Observation products and services. You’ll have noticed that this is not listed in our highlights, as despite our efforts we’ve not managed to do this … yet.

We have made significant progress with our eStore. We have a number of products almost ready to go, the product interface has been developed and we’re currently developing the front end eCommerce website. We’re intending to go live with flooding, turbidity and ocean colour products. So watch this space, things will be happening later this year – we hope!

Launching the products is really the easy bit, the difficult part will be getting people to buy them and this a challenge which firms much larger than us are still to effectively solve. As a small business we tend to market through our website, social media and the odd exhibition. However, we’ll need to come up with some new cost-effective innovative ideas for our eStore if it is to be successful. We’re also participating in Europe wide projects established by EARSC and the Copernicus World Alliance looking at ways of developing the market and promoting Earth Observation products and services.

For the last couple of years we’ve quoted a phrase from ‘Worstward Ho’, a monologue by Samuel Beckett which is ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

This sums up our approach. We try things. If they don’t work out, we try something else. It’s worked okay so far.

Before we leave our five year celebration, we wanted to take the opportunity to thank all of the people who’ve helped us along our journey, including the readers of our blog.

Let’s hope we’re still here in another five years!

UK Space Conference Getting Ready For Take Off

Next week we’ll be in Manchester at the 2017 UK Space Conference.

The UK Space Conference is held every two years, and attracted over 1,000 delegates and over 100 exhibitors when held in Liverpool in 2015. It is a key event that brings together the UK Space Community and this year is taking place over three days, 30th May to the 1st June.

We are exhibiting on stand C7, near the centre of the hall, where you’ll be able to come and talk to us about our products and services including:

  • Atmospheric correction
  • Consultancy services
  • Education & training
  • Flood mapping
  • Ocean colour
  • Spatial analyses & data management
  • Terrestrial vegetation
  • Turbidity mapping

We’re also delighted to announce that our Flood Mapping work is one of the products highlighted in the Innovation Zone, which is sponsored by Innovate UK. It is a low cost floodwater mapping product based on Sentinel-1 radar data, which provides easy to understand flood information and maps through an online portal without the need for specialist knowledge. We have partnered with Harris Geospatial Solutions to provide a fully automated solution.

We’ll also have copies of our book for sale, ‘Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing’. This takes complete novices through the process of finding, downloading, processing, visualising and applying remote sensing satellite data using their own PC, open-source software and a standard internet connection.

The 2017 UK Space Conference itself begins on the Tuesday morning with ‘Space 101’, which is a series of workshops covering some of the key issues related to working in the space sector. The conference then kicks off at lunchtime on the Tuesday with an opening plenary on the latest developments in the UK space sector.

There is a networking event in the Exhibition Hall between 6pm and 9pm on Tuesday evening, and we’ll be on our stand all evening.

Wednesday is brimming over with workshops, presentations, plenary and poster sessions, culminating in the Gala Dinner and Sir Arthur Clarke Awards. Finally, Thursday has another busy day of workshops and plenary sessions, before the Conference closes in the afternoon.

We’re really excited about being in Manchester next week, and looking forward to meeting old and new friends.

We hope that any of you who at the Conference will come up and say hello! We’d love to meet you!

Sentinel To Be Launched

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

Sentinel-2B was launched at 01:49 GMT on the 7th March from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. It’s the second of a constellation of optical satellites which are part of the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme.

Its partner Sentinel-2A was launched on the 23rd June 2015, and has been providing some stunning imagery over the last eighteen months like the picture of Plymouth above. We’ve also used the data within our own work. Sentinel-2B carries an identical Multispectral Imager (MSI) instrument to its twin with 13 spectral bands:

  • 4 visible and near infrared spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 10 m
  • 6 short wave infrared spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 20 m
  • 3 atmospheric correction bands with a spatial resolution of 60 m

With a swath width of 290 km the constellation will acquire data in a band of latitude extending from 56° South around Isla Hornos, Cape Horn, South America to 83° North above Greenland, together with observations over specific calibration sites, such as Dome-C in Antarctica. Its focus will be on continental land surfaces, all European islands, islands bigger than 100 square kilometres, land locked seas and coastal waters.

The satellites will orbit 180 degrees apart at an altitude of 786 km, which means that together they will revisit the same point on Earth every five days at the equator, and it may be faster for parts of southern Europe. In comparison, Landsat takes sixteen days to revisit the same point.

With all Copernicus data being made freely available to anyone, the short revisit time offers opportunities small and micro Earth Observation businesses to establish monitoring products and services without the need for significant investment in satellite data paving the way for innovative new solutions to the way in which certain aspects of the environment are managed. Clearly, five day revisits are not ‘real-time’ and the spatial resolution of Sentinel data won’t be suitable for every problem.There is joint work between the US and Europe, to have complementarity with Landsat-8, which has thermal bands, and allows a further opportunity for cloud-free data acquisitions. Also, commercial operators provide higher spatial resolution data.

At Pixalytics we’re supporters of open source in both software and imagery. Our first point of call with any client is to ask whether the solution can be delivered through free to access imagery, as this can make a significant cost saving and allow large archives to be accessed. Of course, for a variety of reasons, it becomes necessary to purchase imagery to ensure the client gets the best solution for their needs. Of course, applications often include a combination of free to access and paid for data.

Next’s week launch offers new opportunities for downstream developers and we’ll be interested to see how we can exploit this new resource to develop our products and services.

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!

Four Step Countdown to a Book Launch

Book Launch EventRegular readers will know that we wrote our first book last year, ‘Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing’, and on Thursday, 11th February, Pixalytics is holding its first book launch event! We’ve organised it ourselves, and so we thought it might be helpful to give you our four tips for running your own event.

Four: Location, Location, Location
Where to hold the launch? We have a small office and it was not feasible to have it here, so we needed a venue. We thought about hiring rooms in hotels, bookshops or conference centres, but they didn’t feel right. It was then we thought of Plymouth Athenaeum, a local organisation interested in the promotion of the Arts, Literature, Science and Technology – as we’ve got a book on science and technology this seemed ideal!!

The Athenaeum building is in the centre of Plymouth, it was opened in 1961 after the original 1819 building was destroyed in the 1941 Plymouth Blitz. The venue has a lecture theatre, library and lounge which were perfect for what we wanted; it’s also got an actual theatre, but we decided that was a bit beyond us!

We met Owen Ryles, the Acting Honorary General Secretary, who was fantastic in sorting out the arrangements. We had a venue!

Three: Marketing & Publicity
Now we needed awareness. We needed marketing and publicity! We started tweeting about our event, and were delighted to get a lot of likes and retweets. We are really grateful to all our Twitter friends who got involved. The local newspaper, Plymouth Herald, ran an article. Our flyer was also circulated/promoted by other organisations, and we need to thank people at Hydrographic Society UK, Marine Learning Alliance, Plymouth Athenaeum, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Plymouth Science Park and Plymouth University who were all great.

Our event has been promoted around the Plymouth area, but also as far away as Australia and USA. We’ve definitely raised awareness!

Two: Freebies
Getting bums on seats. With lots of people knowing about the event, we need to get them out of the house on what looks like being a chilly and damp February evening. So we decided to give away some freebies! The event will have:

  • Free entry
  • Free raffle to win a copy of the book will be drawn on the night.
  • Free postcards, leaflets and pens on remote sensing and Pixalytics.
  • Free refreshments – tea, coffee, biscuits and cakes.

One: Know Your Audience
Who is coming? As our event is free to attend, we don’t know who is coming or even how many! We’ve promoted it to the scientific/student community who know Sam, the local writing community who know me, the business community who know Pixalytics and those linked to the Athenaeum. It is potentially a varied cross section of an audience.

We decided to start the event with a bit about what remote sensing is, and how you can do it yourself. Sam will then use a lot of images to show the different things you can find out with remote sensing and we’ll end the first part of the evening with a discussion on what it was like to write a book together – the positive, the challenges and how close we came to divorce!

After that we’ll move to the lounge where there will be a small exhibition of remote sensing images, the book, refreshments and we’ll draw the raffle. Hopefully there will be something for everyone here.

This is the journey to our first book launch. However, there are still things we don’t know:

  • Will we remember to take everything?
  • Will the weather be horrible?
  • Are people interested in remote sensing?
  • Will anyone turn up?

We’ll tell you the answers next week!

Update After The Book Launch

To answer the questions we posed:

  • We remembered everything apart from the pineapple! (It was part of an audience participation event demonstrating the principles of remote sensing, too complicated to go into!)
  • The weather was not too bad.
  • Yes they are – given the amount of people who came up to us after the demonstration to ask questions and tell us how much they enjoyed the evening.
  • Yes! About 45 people were are the event which was great for us!

We had a great night and even managed to sell copies of the book! We found some interesting information about Plymouth Athenaeum and its links to the Royal Society, got some interest from local students and even had the local paper in attendance taking pictures!

All in all, it was very enjoyable, and tiring, evening!

 

The Road To Success….

Danube river crossing The Great Romanian Flood Plain. Image acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 3rd December 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

Danube river crossing The Great Romanian Flood Plain. Image acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 3rd December 2015. Data courtesy of ESA.

‘On the road, you will face many stumbling blocks, twists, and turns… You may never know how far the road will take you.’ **

In my case, the road brought me to Plymouth, a city on the south coast of Devon, England, a magical place with great history and outstanding views.

What I am doing here? Well, I am pursuing my dream of becoming a GIS and Remote Sensing Specialist by doing an internship through the Erasmus + programme at a local company called Pixalytics. My mentor is Dr. Samantha Lavender, is a great professional with vast experience in this field, She is also the Chairman of the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies and former Chairman of the Remote Sensing & Photogrammetry Society. For me, this is about more than just getting a grade, earning credit, or making money; this is an opportunity to learn, ask questions, and impress with my eagerness.

Finding this internship was easy for me. With a short search on Google I found this Pixalytics blog, where a previous student here had posted her impressions and thoughts on the company. I immediately said “This worth trying!” In the next moment I opened my email started writing, I sent wrote emails to multiple addresses, to make sure my message reached the target. After just two days, I received an answer from Mr. Andrew Lavender and it was positive!

I was very happy and because I knew the departure papers would take over a month to be completed, I immediately started doing them. All of this happened at the end of September. After my papers were done, I bought my flight ticket to Luton Airport, then a bus to London and then onto Plymouth. I arrived on December 5th and so, like the previous student, here I am posting my own impressions and thoughts on the Pixalytics blog page.

My first day at Pixalytics started pretty badly, I got lost and arrived a little late. I now remind myself each morning to turn left, not right, when I get off the bus. I got a short introduction to the building where the company is located, and my office for the next three months, which by the way looks very good. The office has a professional, but relaxed, atmosphere and I soon started working, one of my first tasks being the downloading of Sentinel-2A data, which proved a very difficult one due to slow data speeds and functionality of the ESA Data Hub.

Over the next three months, I am expecting to assist Pixalytics in developing their agritech products, explore the potential of Sentinel-2A data and I will be doing my own research into Urban Sprawl in Romania. I am hoping to have the opportunity to present my research at a conference during my placement.

It has been over a week now since I came to Plymouth and I feel great, working at Pixalytics is a great opportunity for my career and I will take full advantage of this. I strongly recommend all students who want to burst their work experience and who want to see what it is like to be in a professional business environment, to search for Erasmus+ placement offers as I did. You will not regret it!

Blog written by Catalin Cimpianu

** Quote is by Tony Hassini, from ‘The Road To Success’

Why SME’s should get into print

Business Pages of Plymouth Herald newspaper on 25th November 2015

Business Pages of Plymouth Herald on 25th November 2015

“Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does” – Steuart Henderson Britt.

The importance of digital marketing and having a web presence is rammed down the throat of every small business. We all have websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and a myriad of other social media accounts; but what about press releases? Do you use them? Do you know how to issue them?

Until a few weeks ago Pixalytics’s answers to these questions would have been: No, No and No! We’d had people saying we should issue press releases before, but to be honest we weren’t sure we had anything to say, or whether anyone would be interested.

The first press release occurred in 1906 when journalist Ivy Lee suggested that the Pennsylvania Railroad should issue a statement about what had happened following a train accident. They did and the press release was born. Today, pick up any newspaper or trade magazine and you’ll find stories about what large companies are doing issued by marking or communication departments. If you’re a small business like ours, then we are the salespeople, finance team, administration staff and the people who deliver the products and services – of course we’re also the marketing and communication part of the company too! So spending time on press releases means something else gets delayed or doesn’t get done.

In terms of our marketing, we issue a weekly blog and try to Tweet on a regular – well, fairly regular – basis. We also network and market ourselves at meetings and conferences, and we support/sponsor occasional events – have a look at our blog from 12 months ago about us sponsoring a Formula 1 Team. This is about as much as we do; but we recently decided to have a go at getting press coverage.

The first thing we learnt is that businesses of any size can have newsworthy items, and we felt our book and first employee might be of interest. For the book we focussed on getting the article into a trade magazine, and once we’d chosen the magazine we researched the style of news article they published. We then put together a short press release, which was really just a paragraph about our book, found the name of editor and submitted it by email. For the first employee, we contacted our local paper to see if they were interested in doing a story about a growing company. As simple as that, all in all about an hour’s work.

So how did we do? The image at the top is a headline from today’s (Wednesday 25th November) local paper, which has a great double page profile article written by William Telford, Business Editor. The news item about our book is already on the website of the GeoConnexion trade magazine website, and it hopefully will appear in the January print edition too.

Will it generate more business? Will it promote our brand?  Who knows? It will give us publicity and it was fun to do. We’re definitely going to do more in the future.

After our experience here are some tips would we give SME’s thinking about sending out a press release:

  • Target the key newspapers or magazines you would like to get into, don’t send your press release out everywhere.
  • Find out the name of the journalist or editor, and talk to them – remember these people are actually looking for news articles!
  • Research what they are interested in and submit relevant pieces.
  • Include a picture or image.
  • Don’t forget to leverage any publicity using social media!

If you have not sent out a press release before, then give it a go. What have you got to lose?

Four Ways Flexibility Can Be Your Company’s Core Competence

Business flexibility, Copyright: bloomua / 123RF Stock Photo

Copyright: bloomua / 123RF Stock Photo

Flexibility can be a core competence for small businesses, if they can effectively exploit it. This involves being flexible in all areas, within the principles, values and aims of your business. Zig Ziglar, an author and motivational speaker, summed this up with his quote ‘Be firm on principle, but flexible on method’. Four great ways you can exploit this core competence are:

Product/Service Flexibility
Larger businesses often create and sell a specific set of standard products to their customers. As a small business, you can adapt, modify and tailor your products and services specifically to the individual customers needs. This bespoke approach may take a little more resources, but showing this attention to detail is repaid through happy customers and further work. We believe in providing bespoke solutions to our customers, and find the process of trying to ensure that they get the remote sensing product/service that best suits their needs an exciting and rewarding challenge.

Supplier Flexibility
Don’t assume you have to do everything in the business, outsource wherever possible. This allows you to focus on the things that only you can do to grow the business; i.e., you don’t need to be your company’s accountant, web designer, marketing expert, etc. Richard Branson said ‘Everything in your business can be outsourced … if you’re not emotionally attached to doing it’, and the final part of that quote is critical. Outsource the work, not the control; it’s your business and you need to ensure your outsourcing delivers what you want. This can be difficult where you have clear opinions of what you want to achieve; and you need to work with organisations who share your ethos and vision.

Similarly, don’t tie yourself into long term contracts; unless you’re sure it is right for your business. Being based on the Plymouth Science Park, one of things we like is that moving offices is relatively easy. We moved last week from the second floor to a larger ground floor office. We’re looking to recruit a web developer internship, and so we need more space. We’ve not needed so much space for the last eighteen months, so why pay for it?

Employee Flexibility
Traditional employment methods are recruitment through adverts and everyone working together in one office; technology has changed what’s possible for companies, but the traditional approach is also still hugely prevalent. Sam’s worldwide reputation in remote sensing means we’re often contacted by people who want to work with us, and so our recruitment often occurs via people approaching us. This results in placements and internships that are as valuable as conventional employees.

Equally, we don’t necessarily require everyone to be sat in an office all week. We’re happy for people to work from home, or other locations, if that is more suitable to what they’re doing. In our experience, wherever possible, it’s best for us all to be in the office at least once a week to ensure we’re thinking on the same wavelength. Otherwise, we tend to communicate by email and Skype.

Flexibility of Approach
Whilst being trusted Earth observation experts is Pixalytics overarching company objective, we’re also committed to promoting education and training. As part of this we’ve written a book, The Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing, which is due to be published towards the end of this year. This has taken a significant amount of effort, although getting a first draft out in 9 months is also quick for this genre. Will it bring us any work? We’ve got no idea. However, we do know it will promote, educate and inform people about remote sensing that will in turn support the overall values and aims of our company.

These are four ways we use flexibility to develop our core competence. How are you exploiting flexibility in your business?

2015 UK Space Conference Lifts Off

Uk Space 2015We’re at the UK Space Conference 2015 in Liverpool, and exhibiting! The opening day of the conference has been interesting, exciting and bookended by astronauts. The conference’s plenary session began with an upbeat assessment of the UK space industry, and the progress being made on the UK Space Growth Strategy of delivering a £40 bn sector by 2030; we’re currently at £11.8 bn. The plenary also had a presentation from Helen Sharman, Britain’s first astronaut; and the day ended with Tim Peake, Britain’s next astronaut, phoning into the conference from his preparations in Baikonur.

The European Space Agency’s new Director General, Prof Johann-Dietrich Woerner, gave a very inspiring presentation that put space at the heart of society, politics, science and technology and highlighted the need for new ambitions, disruptive technologies and a village on the far side of the moon! Other interesting presentations included Aleksandra Mir & Alice Sharp who explored the collaborations between art and space. Stuart Armstrong from the fantastically named ‘Future of Humanity Institute’ explained how we could colonise the universe, using natural resources from the planet Mercury. Stuart Marsh, from the Nottingham Geospatial Institute, described using a greater range of persistent features (rather than just urban and rocky features as previously used) to provide more complete maps of ground movement from InSAR. A thought provoking session on the use of Earth Observation data within Climate Services took place on day two, particularly on the need to start developing information products, rather than simply providing data and images.

The exhibition has also been positive. We’ve had good conversations with new people, reconnected with some old friends and given talks to groups of schoolchildren who attended as part of the conference’s Outreach / Education Programme.

Pixalytics stand at UK Space Conference

Pixalytics stand at UK Space Conference

At our first exhibition earlier this year, we published ten top tips for first time exhibitors; now we’d like to add an eleventh – Make sure you know whether or not you have a stand? We are not kidding! We’d reserved exhibition space within the Small Business Hub, which included a cocktail table, two stools and space for one pull-up banner. The plan looked like we were all on one big stand with tables distributed throughout; however, when we turned up yesterday we had our own stand complete with walls! This was a surprise to us, and all the other Small Business Hub exhibitors. The surprise was followed by creative thinking, a shopping trip and then we Blue Peter’d our stand! You can judge the results in the picture on the right.

The conference was great, and can’t wait until 2017!