ESA 2019 Living Planet Symposium Review – Part 1

Artwork by Shane Sutton displayed at 2019 ESA Living Planet Symposium

Last week saw over 4 200 Earth Observation (EO) enthusiasts from over 80 countries travel to Milan to attend ESA’s Living Planet Symposium. With a total of 187 scheduled scientific sessions, as well as open assemblies, workshops, demonstrations, poster sessions and social events throughout the week, there was no shortage of things to see!

The Symposium saw a number of speakers deliver updates and their view of the future direction of the industry, including the Italian Space Agency, the European Commission, EUMETSAT, and of course European Space Agency (ESA). Josef Aschbacher, Director of Earth Observation Programmes at ESA gave an update on the Copernicus Programme, which is now distributing 250 TB of data a day across the globe through missions such as the Sentinel series of satellites. The economic value of EO was also highlighted, with on average, every €1 invested yielding a €4 return. When considering solely Copernicus, this value increases to €10 for every €1 invested.

Robert presenting at ESA Living Planet Symposium 2019

With the event’s overall theme of building a sustainable future and a resilient society, many presentations were related to ecosystem monitoring, albeit from a wide range of disciplines. A personal focus for me was placed on sessions related to agriculture and biomass, with the additional pleasure of being able to present Pixalytics’ work in one such session. The presentation showcased some of our work relating to agricultural yield monitoring in Colombia, with a demonstration of our vegetation indices, land surface temperature, leaf area index, evapotranspiration, and radar products. It was an honour to present at the world’s largest EO conference, exhibiting the information we provide to local farmers across Colombia to promote sustainable agricultural management.

With well over 1000 oral presentations on offer, summarising the highlights is somewhat of a tall order, but several innovative presentations did stand out. One notable demonstration of personal interest was presented by DHI GRAS regarding their work on the Sentinels for Evapotranspiration (SEN_ET) project. The monitoring of evapotranspiration is crucial for agriculture in terms of water accounting, irrigation efficiency and resource management. Traditional methods of estimating the combined loss of water through evaporation and transpiration have required a great deal of input data relating to atmospheric radiation, vapour pressure, air temperature and density, as well as both soil and vegetation characteristics. As such, evapotranspiration estimates from remotely sensed data have often required lengthy and somewhat complicated processing chains – something we at Pixalytics are all too familiar with through the development of our own evapotranspiration product! To combat this, the team at DHI GRAS have developed SEN-ET, a methodology aimed at estimating evapotranspiration using Sentinel-2 and Sentinel-3 data. Initial results show promising results, with all the methodology code being made publicly available, and plans to release a SNAP plugin later this year. This will not only open up opportunities for users to generate a previously complex product with greater ease but also provides the potential of reference data for other evapotranspiration methodologies, such as our own in Pixalytics.

A number of novel approaches to handling the vast amount of EO data now available were also presented, ranging from the development of new and improved vegetation indices, product platforms, sensor assimilation techniques and much more. An innovative approach to handling spaceborne hyperspectral data was presented to map plant traits, using Sparse Canonical Correlation Analysis, a practice more often found within the genetics community. The approach, presented by Pedro J. Leitão from Humboldt University Berlin, was showcased by mapping woody plant traits across The Cerrado, a highly diverse savannah located in Brazil.

The launch of new sensors for EO data is always exciting, and a number of new missions and EO platforms were highlighted across the conference including:

  • GEDI – a LiDAR instrument for global forest monitoring, launched earlier this year with data scheduled for public release on 25th September 2019 which we wrote about earlier this year.
  • ICEYE – An ongoing development of an 18 SAR microsatellite constellation with the ability to image any location on Earth every 1-3 hours.
  • Landsat-9 – The long-term replacement for Landsat-7 set to be launched within the next year.
  • HAPS – Continued development and interest in high-altitude pseudo-satellite solutions as an intermediate sensor between airborne and spaceborne imaging.
  • Copernicus High Priority Candidate Missions – which we’ll take about more in next weeks blog.

However, the conference was not solely focused on the latest scientific findings with a range of impressive EO themed artwork also on display from Shane Sutton, such as one at the top of the blog.


Robert Page
Senior Earth Observation Scientist


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