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!

Earth Day has 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!

Science

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!

Picking Up Penguins From Space

Danger Islands, off Antarctica. Landsat-8 image acquired on 7th December 2017. Image courtesy of NASA/USGS.

World Wildlife Day is the 3rd March, and so fittingly this blog is looking at how satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques were used to recently discover an unknown colony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands off the Antarctica Peninsula in the north-western Weddell Sea. Adélie penguins only live along the Antarctic coast, and they grow to a height of around 70cm and weigh between three and six kilograms.

The paper by ‘Multi-modal survey of Adélie penguin mega-colonies reveals the Danger Islands as a seabird hotspot by Borowicz et al was published in Scientific Reports on the 2nd March 2018. It is interestingly not only because of the discovery of unknown penguins but also because the research combines historic aerial imagery, satellite imagery, drone footage and remote sensing techniques.

The research has its roots in an earlier paper by Lynch and Schwaller from 2014, entitled ‘Mapping the Abundance and Distribution of Adélie Penguins Using Landsat-7: First Steps towards an Integrated Multi-Sensor Pipeline for Tracking Populations at the Continental Scale.’ It describes the development of an algorithm to analyse Landsat and high resolution imagery from WorldView-2 to estimate the size of penguin colonies based on the extent of the guana area. A classification approach was developed from a training dataset of 473 Landsat-7 pixels covering existing Adeline colonies, supported by over 10,000 pixels relating to features such as rock, soil and vegetation.

In the recently published paper, of which Heather Lynch was also a co-author, the team combined a range of imagery alongside some in-situ data to achieve their results. Different types of imagery were used:

  • High Resolution Imagery: Areas of guano staining on the Danger Islands were identified manually from WorldView-2 scenes.
  • Historical aerial photographs: Images taken by Falkland Islands Dependencies Aerial Survey Expedition (FIDASE) on the 31st January 1957 were digitally scanned and geo-referenced to the WorldView-2 data. They were then divided into polygons and analysed using manual classification processing using the open source QGIS software.
  • Landsat: The algorithm previously developed by Lynch and Schwaller was enhanced to work with data from Landsat-4, 7 and 8 by calculating the mean difference of similar bands from Landsat-4 and 8 compared to Landsat-7, and then adjusting based on the mean differences in each spectral band. The enhanced algorithm was then used to classify the penguin colony areas.
  • Drone data: Using a 1.2 megapixel camera flown at height of between 25 m and 45 m, captured footage was processed to produce georeferenced orthomosaics of the Danger Islands. Machine learning techniques were then applied using a deep neural network to locate and identify potential penguins. A training dataset of 160 images with 1237 penguins, followed by a validation dataset of 93 images with 673 penguins was used to teach the network. Once fully trained it analysed all the islands, and the results were validated with a number of manual counts. The scientists worked on an accuracy of plus or minus ten percent for the automated counts, although the variation with the in-situ counts was only 0.6 percent.

The outcome of this research was an identification of 751,527 pairs of previously unknown Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands. More surprisingly is that this increases the world estimates of this type of penguin by almost 50%, when it had been thought that the population had been declining for the last 40 years. The historical aerial imagery has led scientists to speculate that this new colony has remained constant for around the last 60 years in contrast to other known colonies.

This work is a great example of not only how much can be achieved with free-to-access imagery, but also how satellite imagery is helping us discover new things about our planet.

UK Focusing on Agri-tech

Agri-tech has long been seen as an exploitable opportunity for Earth Observation (EO). This was highlighted again last week by Greg Clark MP, the Business Secretary, at his speech at the National Farmers’ Union Conference in Birmingham where he announced a £90 million investment in the agri-tech sector specifically relating to EO, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.

A definition of agri-tech can be the use of technology to improve agriculture production in terms of yield, efficiency and profitability. Despite all the innovations we’ve had in farming, according to the United Nations, there is still one in nine people in the the world undernourished.

In addition, UNESCO estimates that with the growing global population we’ll need sixty percent more food produced by 2050. Innovative and news ways of working within food production are going to be vital to deliver this level of increase. However, it’s a complex issue. Other critical factors include water demand from agriculture that is already expected to rise by 20% in the coming years, and the agriculture sector is also the largest employer in the world with almost forty percent of the world’s population dependent on it for their livelihoods.

The Government announcement last week recognised the importance of the agriculture industry within this country, as the sector employs four million people and provides £14.3 billion to the national economy. However, we were a little surprised to read that there are half a million jobs solely working in agri-tech in the UK.

The money announced is part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund that was established last year to provide £4.7 billion for research and development to support the Government’s Industrial Strategy. It has a number of challenges and this one is part of Transforming Food Production: From Farm to Fork. Further details are expected, but they have indicated they’re looking to make food production more efficient, productive and sustainable, as well as bringing highly skilled jobs to rural areas and develop some of the exports the UK is likely to need post Brexit.

EO, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics all offer huge possibilities in this area, not only in the food production but also in reducing pollution, waste and land management. For us the EO area is very exciting, and we’ve been involved in the sector for some time. Pixalytics is currently involved in a project in Uganda to support farmers on Drought and Flood Mitigation, and this week Sam is in South America kicking off a project directly supporting rice and palm oil growers.

In addition locally to us, Cornwall has an active agri-tech hub helping small and medium-sized Cornish companies innovate in this sector with support from various academic institutes including Plymouth University who through its Sustainable Earth Institute have projects including robotic systems for automating manual picking operations, developing the manufacture and analysis of artificial soils and the expansion of hydroponic growing environments.

We’ll be keeping an eye on the next stage in this challenge, as we’re always looking for new EO projects and opportunities within agri-tech. If the Government is serious about its stated ambition to put the country at the forefront of this revolution, there should be exciting times ahead.

Monitoring Water Quality from Space

Algal Blooms in Lake Erie, around Monroe, acquired by Sentinel-2 on 3rd August 2017. Data Courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Two projects using Earth Observation (EO) data to monitor water quality caught our eye recently. As we’re in process of developing two water quality products for our own online portal, we’re interested in what everyone else is doing!

At the end of January UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme launched a tool to monitor global water quality. The International Initiative on Water Quality (IIWQ) World Water Quality Portal, built by EOMAP, provides:

  • turbidity and sedimentation distribution
  • chlorophyll-a concentration
  • Harmful Algal Blooms indicator
  • organic absorption
  • surface temperature

Based on optical data from Landsat and Sentinel-2 it can provide global surface water mosaics at 90 m spatial resolution, alongside 30 m resolution for seven pilot river basins.  The portal was launched in Paris at the “Water Quality Monitoring using Earth Observation and Satellite-based Information” meeting and was accompanied by an exhibition on “Water Quality from the Space – Mesmerizing Images of Earth Observation”.

The tool, which can be found here, focuses on providing colour visualizations of the data alongside data legends to help make it as easy as possible to use. It is hoped that this will help inform and educate policy makers, water professionals and the wider public about the value of using satellite data from monitoring water resources.

A second interesting project, albeit on a smaller scale, was announced last week which is going to use Sentinel-2 imagery to monitor water quality in Scottish Lochs. Dr Claire Neil, from the University of Stirling, is leading the project and will be working with Scottish Environment Protection Agency. It will use reflectance measures to estimate the chlorophyll-a concentrations to help identify algal blooms and other contaminants in the waters. The project will offer an alternative approach to the current water quality monitoring, which uses sampling close to the water’s edge.

An interesting feature of the project, particularly for us, is the intention to focus on developing this work into an operational capability for SEPA to enable them to improve their approach to assessing water quality.

This transition from a ‘good idea’ into an operational product that will be used, and therefore purchased, by end users is what all EO companies are looking for and we’re not different. Our Pixalytics Portal which we discussed a couple of weeks ago is one of the ways we are trying to move in that direction. We have two water quality monitoring products on it:

  • Open Ocean Water Quality product extracts time-series data from a variety of 4 km resolution satellite datasets from NASA, giving an overview what is happening in the water without the need to download a lot of data.
  • Planning for Coastal Airborne Lidar Surveys product provides an assessment of the penetration depth of a Lidar laser beam, from an airborne survey system, within coastal waters based on the turbidity of the water. This ensures that companies who plan overflights can have confidence in how far their Lidar will see.

We’re just at the starting point in productizing the services we offer, and so it is always good to see how others are approaching the similar problem!

Celebrating Landsat & the Winter Olympics

First Landsat image acquired in 2013 showing area around Fort Collins, Colorado. Data courtesy of NASA/USGS.

The Landsat programme achieved a couple of significant milestones over the last two weeks. Firstly, the 11th February marked the five year anniversary of the launch of Landsat 8 which took place at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in 2013. The image to the right is the first one acquired by Landsat 8 and shows the area around Fort Collins, Colorado with the Horsetooth Reservoir very clear left of centre.

This anniversary is an interesting one because Landsat 8 was only designed for an operational life of five years. Obviously it has already exceeded this and these planned lifespans are very conservative. More often the amount of fuel on board is a more relevant assessment for lifespan and for Landsat 8 the initial assessment was a 10 year lifespan. However, even this tends to be a conservative estimate. As an example, nineteen years ago Landsat 7 was launched with similar planned operational lifespans. It is still working today, although there have been some degradation issues, and IT achieved its own significant milestone on the 1st February when it completed its 100,000th orbit of the Earth.

Landsat 8 is in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 705 km, circles the Earth every 98.9 minutes and in the last five years has undertaken over 26,500 orbits according to NASA who have produced a short celebratory video.

It has two main instruments, an Operational Land Imager (OLI) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS), which together measure eleven different spectral bands. The TIRS has two thermal bands which are used for sensing temperature, whereas the OLI measures nine spectral bands:

  • Three visible light bands that approximate red, green and blue
  • One near infrared band
  • Two shortwave infrared bands
  • Panchromatic band with a higher spatial resolution
  • The two final bands focus on coastal aerosols and cirrus clouds.

With the exception of the highest polar latitudes, Landsat 8 acquires images of the whole Earth every 16 days which has meant it has acquired over 1.1 million images of the Earth that accounts for 16 percent of all the data in the Landsat multi-mission archive.

Landsat 8 image of Pyeongchang, South Korea, which is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics. Data acquired 11th February 2018. Data courtesy of NASA/USGS.

The image to the left is the Pyeongchang region of South Korea where the Winter Olympics are currently taking place acquired by Landsat on its five year anniversary on the 11th February. Pyeongchang is in the north west of South Korea in the TaeBaek Mountains just over one hundred miles from the capital, Seoul. The left area of the image shows the mountain range where the skiing, biathlon, ski jumping, bobsled, luge and skeleton events take place and to the right is the coastal city of Gangneung, where the ice hockey, curling, speed skating and figure skating are taking place.

With its forty-five year archive, Landsat offers the longest continuous dataset of Earth observations and is critical to researchers and scientists. Landsat 9 is planned to be launched in 2020 and Landsat 10 is already being discussed.

Congratulations to Landsat 7 and 8, and we look forward to many more milestones in the future.