5 Signs You Work In Earth Observation

Sentinel-2A image of UK south east coastline, acquired on 4th September 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Do you recognise yourself in any these five signs? if so, you’re definitely working in the Earth observation industry.

  1. You have a favourite satellite or instrument, or image search tool.
  2. When a satellite image appears on television, you tell everyone in the room which satellite/sensor it came from.
  3. You’ve got an irrational hatred for clouds (unless you’re working on clouds or using radar images).
  4. Anything space related happens and your family asks whether you’re involved with it, and thinks you know everyone who works at NASA or ESA.
  5. Your first reaction to seeing an interesting location isn’t that you should plan to go there. Instead, you wonder whether it would make a good satellite image.

We tick all of these signs at Pixalytics! Last week we suffered from number five when we saw a snippet from the season finale of the UK TV programme ‘Liar’. It wasn’t a programme we’d watched, but as we caught an atmospheric panning shot of the location, and only one thought when through our minds, ‘That would make a great satellite image!’

It was a stunning shot of a marshland with water interwoven between islands. Without knowing anything about the programme, we were expecting it to have been filmed in a far flung Nordic location. Following a bit of impromptu googling we were surprised to discover it was actually Tollesbury on the Essex coast in the UK. It also turns out that we were late to the party on the discovery of the programme and the location.

Sentinel-2A image of Mersea Island and surrounding area, acquired on 4th September 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

The image on the right shows Mersea Island, which has brown saltmarshes above it within the adjacent inlets of the Blackwater Estuary. To the left of the island is the village of Tollesbury and the Tollesbury marina, which is located within the saltmarshes. This area is the largest of the saltmarshes of Essex, but only the fifth largest of the UK. They play a key role in flood protection and can reduce the height of damaging waves in storm surge conditions by 20%. However, they are disappearing due to sea erosion that’s caused a sixty percent reduction in the last 20 years.

The image itself is a zoomed in pseudo-true-colour composite at 10 m spatial resolution using data acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 4th September 2017 – a surprisingly cloud free day for the UK. The full Sentinel-2 image can be seen at the top of the blog.

As often happens when we look in detail at satellite images, something catches our eye. This time it was the three bluish looking strips just above Mersea island. These are the 82,944 solar panels which make up Langenhoe Solar Farm, and have the capacity to generate 21.15 MW of solar power.

So how many of you recognise our signs of working in Earth observation? Any you think we’ve missed? Get in touch, let us know!

Flip-Sides of Soil Moisture

Soil Moisture changes between 19th and 25th August around Houston, Texas due to rainfall from Hurricane Harvey. Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using soil moisture data courtesy of JPL and the SMAP science team.

Soil moisture is an interesting measurement as it can be used to monitor two diametrically opposed conditions, namely floods and droughts. This was highlighted last week by maps produced from satellite data for the USA and Italy respectively. These caught our attention because soil moisture gets discussed on a daily basis in the office, due to its involvement in a project we’re working on in Uganda.

Soil moisture can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. For this blog we’re using soil moisture to describe the amount of water held in spaces between the soil in the top few centimetres of the ground. Data is collected by radar satellites which measure microwaves reflected or emitted by the Earth’s surface. The intensity of the signal depends on the amount of water in the soil, enabling a soil moisture content to be calculated.

Floods
You can’t have failed to notice the devastating floods that have occurred recently in South Asia – particularly India, Nepal and Bangladesh – and in the USA. The South Asia floods were caused by monsoon rains, whilst the floods in Texas emanated from Hurricane Harvey.

Soil moisture measurements can be used to show the change in soil saturation. NASA Earth Observatory produced the map at the top of the blogs shows the change in soil moisture between the 19th and 25th August around Houston, Texas. The data is based on measurements acquired by the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, which uses a radiometer to measure soil moisture in the top 5 centimetres of the ground with a spatial resolution of around 9 km. On the map itself the size of each of the hexagons shows how much the level of soil moisture changed and the colour represents how saturated the soil is.

These readings have identified that soil moisture levels got as high as 60% in the immediate aftermath of the rainfall, partly due to the ferocity of the rain, which prevented the water from seeping down into the soil and so it instead remained at the surface.

Soil moisture in Italy during early August 2017. The data were compiled by ESA’s Soil Moisture CCI project. Data couresy of ESA. Copyright: C3S/ECMWF/TU Wien/VanderSat/EODC/AWST/Soil Moisture CCI

Droughts
By contrast, Italy has been suffering a summer of drought and hot days. This year parts of the country have not seen rain for months and the temperature has regularly topped one hundred degrees Fahrenheit – Rome, which has seventy percent less rainfall than normal, is planning to reduce water pressure at night for conservation efforts.

This has obviously caused an impact on the ground, and again a soil moisture map has been produced which demonstrates this. This time the data was come from the ESA’s Soil Moisture Climate Change Initiative project using soil moisture data from a variety of satellite instruments. The dataset was developed by the Vienna University of Technology with the Dutch company VanderSat B.V.

The map shows the soil moisture levels in Italy from the early part of last month, with the more red the areas, the lower the soil moisture content.

Summary
Soil moisture is a fascinating measurement that can provide insights into ground conditions whether the rain is falling a little or a lot.

It plays an important role in the development of weather patterns and the production of precipitation, and is crucial to understanding both the water and carbon cycles that impact our weather and climate.

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!

Supporting Uganda’s Farmers

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

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

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

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

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

The project should benefit local communities by:

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

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

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

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

UK Government View On ESA and Space Industry

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

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

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

The timing is interesting for two reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Top Tips Learnt Working for a Small Remote Sensing Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog written by Dr Louisa Reynolds.

Gathering of the UK Remote Sensing Clans

RSPSOC

The Remote Sensing & Photogrammetry Society (RSPSoc) 2016 Annual Conference is taking place this week, hosted by the University of Nottingham and the British Geological Society. Two Pixalytics staff, Dr Sam Lavender and Dr Louisa Reynolds, left Plymouth on a cold wet day on Monday, and arrived in the Nottinghamshire sunshine as befits RSPSoc week. The conference runs for three days and gives an opportunity to hear about new developments and research within remote sensing. Both Sam and Louisa are giving presentations this year.

Tuesday morning began with the opening keynote presentation given by Stephen Coulson of the European Space Agency (ESA), which discussed their comprehensive programme including the Copernicus and Earth Explorer missions. The Copernicus missions are generating ten times more data than similar previous missions, which presents logistical, processing and storage challenges for users. The future vision is to bring the user to the data, rather than the other way around. However, the benefits of cloud computing are still to be fully understood and ESA are interested in hearing about applications that couldn’t be produced with the IT technology we had 5 years ago.

After coffee Sam chaired the commercial session titled ‘The challenges (and rewards) of converting scientific research into commercial products.’ It started with three short viewpoint presentations from Jonathan Shears (Telespazio VEGA UK), Dr Sarah Johnson (University of Leicester) and Mark Jarman (Satellite Applications Catapult), and then moved into an interactive debate. It was great to see good attendance and a lively discussion ensued. Sam is planning to produce a white paper, with colleagues, based on the session. Some of the key points included:

  • Informative websites so people know what you do
  • Working with enthusiastic individuals as they will make sure something happens, and
  • To have a strong commercial business case alongside technical feasibility.
Dr Louisa Reynolds, Pixalytics Ltd, giving a presentation at RSPSoc 2016

Dr Louisa Reynolds, Pixalytics Ltd, giving a presentation at RSPSoc 2016

Louisa presented on Tuesday afternoon within the Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction session. Her presentation was ‘A semi-automated flood mapping procedure using statistical SAR backscatter analysis’ which summarised the work Pixalytics has been doing over the last year on flood mapping which was funded by the Space for Smarter Government Programme (SSGP). Louisa was the third presenter who showed Sentinel-1 flood maps of York, and so it was a popular topic!

Alongside Louisa’s presentation, there have some fascinating other talks on topics as varied as:

  • Detecting and monitoring artisanal oil refining in the Niger Delta
  • Night time lidar reading of long-eroded gravestones
  • Photogrammatic maps of ancient water management features in Al-Jufra, Libya.
  • Seismic risk in Crete; and
  • Activities of Map Action

Although for Louisa her favourite part so far was watching a video of the launch of Sentinel 1A, through the Soyuz VS07 rocket’s discarding and deployment stages, simultaneously filmed from the craft and from the ground.

Just so you don’t think the whole event is about remote sensing, the conference also has a thriving social scene. On Monday there was a tour of The City Ground, legendary home of Nottingham Forest, by John McGovern who captained Forest to successive European Cup’s in 1979 and 1980. It was a great event and it was fascinating to hear about the irascible leadership style of Brian Clough. Tuesday’s event was a tour round the spooky Galleries of Justice Museum.

The society’s Annual General Meeting takes place on Wednesday morning; Sam’s presentation, ‘Monitoring Land Cover Dynamics: Bringing together Landsat-8 and Sentinel-2 data’, is in the Land Use/Land Cover Mapping session which follows.

The start of RSPSoc has been great as usual, offering chances to catch up with old remote sensing friends and meet some new ones. We are looking forward to rest of the conference and 2017!

Flooding Forecasting & Mapping

Sentinel-1 data for York overlaid in red with Pixalytics flood mapping layer based on Giustarini approach for the December 2015 flooding event. Data courtesy of ESA.

Sentinel-1 data for York overlaid in red with Pixalytics flood mapping layer based on Giustarini approach for the December 2015 flooding event. Data courtesy of ESA.

Media headlines this week have shouted that the UK is in for a sizzling summer with temperature in the nineties, coupled with potential flooding in August due to the La Niña weather process.

The headlines were based on the UK Met Office’s three month outlook for contingency planners. Unfortunately, when we looked at the information ourselves it didn’t exactly say what the media headlines claimed! The hot temperatures were just one of a number of potential scenarios for the summer. As any meteorologist will tell you, forecasting a few days ahead is difficult, forecasting a three months ahead is highly complex!

Certainly, La Niña is likely to have an influence. As we’ve previously written, this year has been influenced by a significant El Niño where there are warmer ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific. La Niña is the opposite phase, with colder ocean temperatures in that region. For the UK this means there is a greater chance of summer storms, which would mean more rain and potential flooding. However, there are a lot of if’s!

At the moment our ears prick up with any mention of flooding, as Pixalytics has just completed a proof of concept project, in association with the Environment Agency, looking to improve operational flood water extent mapping information during flooding incidents.

The core of the project was to implement recent scientific research published by Matgen et al. (2011), Giustarini et al. (2013) and Greifeneder et al. (2014). So it was quite exciting to find out that Laura Guistarini was giving a presentation on flooding during the final day of last week’s ESA Living Planets Symposium in Prague – I wrote about the start of the Symposium in our previous blog.

Laura’s presentation, An Automatic SAR-Based Flood Mapping Algorithm Combining Hierarchical Tiling and Change Detection, was interesting as when we started to implement the research on Sentinel-1 data, we also came to the conclusion that the data needed to be split into tiles. It was great to hear Laura present, and I managed to pick her brains a little at the end of the session. At the top of the blog is a Sentinel-1 image of York, overlaid with a Pixalytics derived flood map in red for the December 2015 flooding based on the research published by Laura

The whole session on flooding, which took place on the last morning of the Symposium, was interesting. The presentations also included:

  • the use of CosmoSkyMed data for mapping floods in forested areas within Finland.
  • extending flood mapping to consider Sentinel-1 InSAR coherence and polarimetric information.
  • an intercomparison of the processing systems developed at DLR.
  • development of operational flood mapping in Norway.

It was useful to understand where others were making progress with Sentinel-1 data, and how different processing systems were operating. It was also interesting that several presenters showed findings, or made comments, related to the double bounce experienced when a radar signal is reflected off not just the ground, but another structure such as a building or tree. Again it is something we needed to consider as we were particularly looking at urban areas.

The case study of our flood mapping project was published last week on the Space for Smarter Government Programme website as they, via UK Space Agency, using the Small Business Research Initiative supported by Innovate UK, funded the project.

We are continuing with our research, with the aim of having our own flood mapping product later this year – although the news that August may have flooding means we might have to quicken our development pace!