Middle Earth Observation!

Clock Tower, Birmingham University, September 2018

The 2018 UK National Earth Observation (EO) Conference took place last week, and this review is our highlights of three days in Birmingham!

The conference was a joint collaboration between the Remote Sensing & Photogrammetry Society, the National Centre for Earth Observation and the Centre for EO Instrumentation, and took place at Birmingham University between 4th and 7th of September.

Birmingham University is only university in the UK to have its own railway station on campus. A more exciting claim to fame, at least for some of us, is that the University’s clock tower is suggested to be JRR Tolkien’s inspiration for Orthanc, the tower at Isengard occupied by the wizard Saruman in the ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy!

Moving away from Middle Earth, the theme of the conference was Earth Observation into the Future, with the term New Space also frequently mentioned. Whilst sounding like the potential name of a 1980’s electro band, in this context it was used to refer to the globally emerging, private spaceflight industry, and the technological advances that come along with it.

Unfortunately, we didn’t arrive until late on the Tuesday evening and so missed the evening’s keynote speaker. Our conference began on the first full day with the keynote from Josef Aschbacher, Director of Earth Observation at ESA who focused on the roadmap for EO at ESA over the coming decades, whilst highlighting the UK’s significant contribution to the EU Space campaign. He described the success of the Copernicus programme with more than 165,000 users registered on the Sentinel-Hub, and through this and other archives it’s estimated that 150 TB of satellite images are downloaded each day. He also confirmed that 2020 will be the launch date for the EarthCARE satellite which will use lidar and radar to measure the role that clouds and aerosols play in reflecting incident solar radiation back into space and trapping infrared radiation emitted from Earth’s surface. It was also interesting to note that ESA’s Aeolus satellite, which we discussed a couple of weeks ago, was confirmed to be operating at full power in the early hours of the morning following Josef’s keynote.

The UK was the biggest contributor to ESA’s Ministerial Council (2016) and continues to be the primary provider to the ‘Global Monitoring for Essential Climate Variables’ as part of the companies’ Climate Change Initiative. These factors set the UK in good stead for the future of New Space, and will greatly aid the governmental target of increasing shares in the global space market to 10% by 2030, a value estimated to be £400 billion, an ambitious but achievable objective from the 6.5% share currently held.

The first plenary on ‘The Future of Downstream EO’ was an interesting session, with a number of good presentations including:

  • Owen Hawkins from Earth-i described Vivid-i, an innovative constellation of satellites produced by Earth-i which allow the capture of 2 minute, full colour video from satellites, producing a range of remarkable imagery for uses such as air and traffic monitoring, target tracking, and cloud mitigation at spatial resolutions of up to 60 cm. You can see more here.
  • Anne Hale Milgarese from Radiant.Earth described how the company was moving to become a foundation and their plans for developing open geospatial data as a force for positive impact.
  • Simon Reid from Rhea, talked about the practical Implementation of an EO Data Cube, and used the project they lead, and we’re supporting amongst others, to implement a Drought and Flood Mitigation Service in Uganda.

There was also an interested keynote from Massimiliano Vitale from Planet describing their approach to EO. We didn’t realise until this presentation that Planet put out all their satellites along one sun-synchronous orbit and so effectively image the world as a huge line scanner, which enables them to meet their goal of imaging the world’s landmass every day.

There were lots of other highlights during the event including:

  • Remote Sensing & Photogrammetry Society Annual General Meeting.
  • Alistair Duncan talking about the Environment Agency’s National LIDAR Programme.
  • Mark Wronkiewicz from Development Seed gave a thought provoking assessment of Artificial Intelligence (AI) within EO, with his view that machines should work more like robots, and humans work more like people. This would mean that AI assists, rather than replaces people in workflow.

With the current rate of sustained growth in the global space industry, as well as the remarkable developments in technology across the field, the presentations and discussions at this conference show that Earth Observation remains an exciting discipline with the potential to help solve the societal challenges of the 21st Century on a global scale.

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