Next Satellites Twins Ready For Launch

Illustration of the twin spacecraft of the NASA/German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) twin satellite mission is scheduled for launch on Monday, 21st May, from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It will be aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, alongside a number of commercial satellites.

As its name suggests, GRACE-FO is a follow on to the original GRACE mission which was launched in 2002 and reached end of life in November 2017. Both missions use innovative microwave measurement techniques to map deviations in the Earth’s gravity fields, which in turn enable changes in the oceans, ice sheets and land masses to be monitored. Both the original, and follow on, are joint missions between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ).

Each of GRACE-FO’s identical satellites weigh around 600 kg and measure approximately 3 m x 2 m x 0.8 m. They’ll be launched into low Earth circular polar orbits at around 490 km altitude, separated by between 170 and 270 km and to maintain this distance will require regular orbital moves during the mission life.

The essence of the mission is to constantly measure how far apart the two satellites are by sending microwave signals between them. This distance changes under the influence of the Earth’s gravity, by pulling the lead satellite away from its partner. Precisely measuring this, makes it possible map the changes in the Earth’s gravitation field. These changes are caused by the movements in water, ice and earth, and some examples with the GRACE datasets include:

  • Loss of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland
  • Seasonal changes in the Amazon basic
  • Loss of groundwater in California.

The key instruments on board GRACE-FO include:

  • Microwave Instrument (MWI): this sends K and Ka band microwave signals between the two satellites to precisely measure their distance apart. Its reported that they are accurate to one micron – the diameter of a blood vessel!
  • Laser ranging interferometer (LRI): This experimental instrument is an addition to the original GRACE mission and makes the same measurement as the MWI, but using lasers instead. It’s estimated that this could improve accuracy by at least a factor of 10.
  • Accelerometer: Measures the factors other than gravity affecting the satellite orbits.
  • GPS Receivers: Determine the exact position over the Earth to within a centimetre.

GRACE-FO will operate on a decaying orbit and so will not have constant repeating ground-track, but it should map the globe every thirty days. In addition, it will produce hundreds of daily profiles of temperature and water vapour.

GRACE produced some fascinating insights during its fifteen year mission; it had been hoped that the two missions would be in space together to allow for calibration between them, but this was not possible. Scientists are itching to get new data from GRACE-FO following the six month gap and it’s hoped that the new pair will provide further insights into how the world’s climate is changing, the loss of the ice sheets and monitoring how much water we’re currently using – all of which could have major impacts on our future!

Will You Have To Pay For Landsat Data?

Shetland Islands, Scotland. data acquired by Landsat 8 on 27 April 2014. Data courtesy of NASA/USGA.

Interesting discussions are taking place in the US on the position of free-to-access data which has the potential to affect everyone working in the downstream industry.

The US Government is once again exploring the possibility of reintroducing charges for accessing Landsat data. It was reported by the Landsat Advisory Group at the National Geospatial Advisory Committee meeting on the 3rd and 4th April 2018 that the Department of Interior asked them, last July, to look at whether the costs of Landsat could be recovered from its users.

It’s not the first time that this has been looked at since Landsat was made free-to-access in 2008. We’ve previously written about how free-to-access data, does not mean free data, but the lack of a usage charge saw an explosion in the use of this data. However, the political and industry backdrop is different this time. Anyone who has been following President Trump’s space policy will be aware of the shift in focus, and funding, away from Earth Observation (EO). Hence, the obvious appeal of recovering the costs from Landsat users to allow the programme to continue. It was reported at the NASA 2019 Budget Hearing last month that everything was on track for the launch of Landsat-9 in December 2020.

The Landsat Advisory Group reported it was working on three tasks in relation to this, which are due to be reported on later this year:

  1. Review the Landsat user community’s willingness-to-pay.
  2. Review the results of their previous paper ‘Statement on Landsat Data Use and Charges from 2012 and any other relevant studies looking at potential for users to pay.
  3. Update the results of 2011 study on The Users, Uses, and Value of Landsat and Other Moderate-Resolution Satellite Imagery in the United States.

At the last review, the Statement on Landsat Data Use and Charges produced a recommendation that Landsat data must continue to be distributed at no cost. There were a number of reasons given at the time including:

  • Severely restrict data use.
  • Cost more than the amount of revenue generated by the charges.
  • Stifle innovation and business activity that creates jobs.
  • Inhibit data analysis in scientific and technical fields.
  • Negatively impact international relations relating to national, homeland, and food Security.
  • Negatively impact U.S. standing as the leader in space technology.

Whilst a lot of these reasons are still relevant today, it’s undeniable that the industry landscape has changed in the last six years due to the expansion of commercial satellite providers. Part of the reason that Landsat, and other similar national satellites, were launched by originally government organisations is commercial operators did not have the relevant funding, capability or business model to do so. This has changed to a degree and last week in an article in spacenews.com they noted that 30 companies operating today who have launched, or have announced their intention to launch, EO satellites. These range from the high resolution Worldview satellites owned by DigitalGlobe, though Planet’s large cubesat constellation to the small specialist constellations such as ICEYE.

Governments are still the major buyers of commercial data, and as the amount of this data continues to increase it’s not surprise to see existing free-to-access business models being revisited. Not all of these changes are negative, for example, recent changes to the way ESA accesses third party missions, including from commercial suppliers, means startups and incubators can use this data for building services as they transition from research and development.

So if this happens and the US start charging for Landsat, does it matter? Well, yes it does!

Landsat has an unrivalled archive utilised by users across the globe and any fees will have negative implications for:

  • Encouraging the wider uptake of Earth Observation through schools and students which could harm the future generation of scientific researchers
  • Scientific research as scientists will potenitally go back to using smaller, or even the minimum necessary, data sets
  • Businesses who’ve developed services based on Landsat data, and we’d include ourselves in this group. Clearly, any costs of data will need to be passed onto clients and so this could change, or even destroy, business models.
  • See a switch from US Landsat to the EU’s Copernicus data as the go to free-to-access data source, meaning significant reduced time series options.

Whilst this has been discussed before, and the US have withdrawn from the edge, this time the world is different and everyone should be aware that there is a real potential that Landsat data could be charged for as early as next year. The satellite data industry could be about to have another twist. Are you ready?

Is China Becoming the Worlds Earth Observation Power?

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

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

Whilst Europe’s Earth Observation (EO) community was focussed on the successful launch of Sentinel-3B last week, you may have missed that it was also an exciting few days for the Chinese EO and space sectors.

On Thursday 26th April at 4.42 (GMT) China launched five EO satellites using the Long March 11 rocket at 4.42pm (GMT) from a mobile platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert.

The five small Zhuhai-1 remote sensing satellites were put into sun-synchronous orbits. Four of these satellites are reported to be carrying China’s first commercial hyperspectral cameras, with a spatial resolution of 10 metres. The fifth satellite carried a video camera with a spatial resolution of 90 centimetres, operating with a swath width of 22.5 km.

All of these satellites are owned by the Zhuhai Orbita Aerospace Science and Technology Co Ltd. The company plans to establish a constellation of 34 video, hyperspectral and other satellites to provide data for agriculture, land and water resources, environmental protection, geologic monitoring and transport. The next five satellites in the constellation are expected to be launched later this year.

Also last week, the 24th April was China’s third national Space Day with a theme of forging a new era of space development. As part of the event the first China Aerospace Conference was held in Harbin in China’s Heilongjiang Province, with reportedly over 2,000 people gathering to discuss space technology and introduce China’s latest space programs.

There were some interesting announcements coming out of the Conference, including:

  • Northern Chinese province of Shaanxi released a plan to create a 72 strong Cubesat constellation to provide rapid data for land surveying, environmental monitoring, disaster warnings, agriculture, forestry, and water conservation in Shaanxi. It hopes to launch the first two prototypes next June.
  • Queqiao was announced as the name of the satellite that will carry the Chang’e-4 lunar probe into a halo orbit of the moon. Queqiao, named after a magpie bridge from a Chinese folktale, will be launched in late May 2018 and the probe hopes to will be sent down to the surface around six months later. If successful, it will be the first exploration of the dark side of the moon.
  • China also announced plans to send a group of new satellites into orbit around 2020, including:
    • Water Cycle Observation Mission (WCOM) : Will simultaneously measure key parameters such as soil moisture, ocean salinity, and ocean surface evaporation.
    • Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE): Joint mission with Europe to focus on the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth magnetosphere.
    • Einstein-Probe will search for celestial bodies that emit X-rays during fierce changes.
    • Advanced Space-borne Solar Observatory (ASO-S) to monitor magnetic fields, flares, and coronal mass ejections.
    • Gravitational Wave Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor (GECAM) will search for electromagnetic signals associated with gravitational waves.
  • Launch of Gaofen-5 satellite is scheduled for 2nd May, from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre. This is part of the China High-resolution Earth Observation System (CHEOS) which includes multi-spectrum imaging and synthetic aperture radar satellites. Gaofen-5 is reported to have six instruments including a visible and short-wave infra hyper-spectral camera, spectral imager, greenhouse gas detector, atmospheric environment infrared detector at very high spectral resolution, differential absorption spectrometer for atmospheric trace gas, and multi-angle polarisation detector.

It’s clear that China has big plans for the space exploration and EO, and it soon could become the world leader in these fields – particularly if the data was made available more widely. No-one working in our community can ignore these developments and what potential future impact they may have.

Sentinel 3B Sets Forth

Copernicus Sentinel-3B satellite in its rocket ready to go to the launch pad.
Image courtesy of ESA–S. Corvaja.

The latest Sentinel satellite in the Copernicus programme, 3B, launched on the 25th April from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. Lift-off was at 18.57 (BST) and you could have watched the event live on the ESA broadcast.

Sentinel-3B is the twin to Sentinel-3A which was launched on the 16th February 2016. It has a launch weight of approximately 1 250 kg and following a flight of just under one and half hours, it should go into a near polar sun-synchronous orbit at an 814 km altitude.

The twin satellites are identical and carry four scientific instruments:

  • Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR) will measure temperatures of both the sea and land, to an accuracy of better than 0.3 K. This instrument has 9 spectral bands with a spatial resolution of 500 m for visible/near-infrared wavelengths and 1 km for the thermal wavelengths; and has swath widths of 1420 km at nadir and 750 km looking backwards. It’s worth noting that two thermal infrared spectral wavebands are optimised for fire detection, providing the fire radiative power measurement.
  • Ocean and Land Colour Instrument (OLCI) has 21 spectral bands (400–1020 nm) focussed on ocean colour and vegetation measurements. All bands have a spatial resolution of 300 m with a swath width of 1270 km.
  • Synthetic Aperture Radar Altimeter (SRAL) which has dual frequency Ku and C bands. It offers 300 m spatial resolution after SAR processing, and is based on the instruments from the CryoSat and Jason missions.
  • Microwave Radiometer (MWR) dual frequency at 23.8 & 36.5 GHz, it is used to derive atmospheric column water vapour measurements for correcting the SRAL instrument.

Once in orbit the two satellites will be separated by 140 degrees which will allow them to offer short revisit times – less than two days for the OLCI and less than a day at the equator for the SLSTR. The operational life of the satellite is seven years.

Italy and the Mediterranean captured by Sentinel-3A on the 28 September 2016.
Image, courtesy of and, contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2016), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Sentinel-3 is generally considered to be an ocean and coastal monitoring mission and its measurements include sea-surface height, sea surface temperature, ocean colour, surface wind speed, sea ice thickness and ice sheets. In the image to the left, it is interesting to note the sediment in water on the east coast of the Italy, in contrast to the mostly sediment free west coast.

As you can see from this image in addition to its primary focus on water, Sentinel-3 also provides measurements over land which includes the heights of rivers and lakes, water quality indicators, land cover change, vegetation indices and monitoring wildfires.

This is the seventh satellite in the Copernicus programme launched since 2014, and will complete the trio of twin satellites following the radar imaging Sentinel-1A & 1B and the optical imaging Sentinel 2A & 2B. The seventh satellite the singular Sentinel-5P which measures the atmosphere, although there a number of further Sentinel missions already planned. All the data from these satellites is free to access to anyone with a computer and a decent internet connection. You can download the data yourself, although there are an increasing number of websites online that will do a lot of the basic processing and visualising for you, meaning all you need to do is pick what you want to investigate. This is great for people new to satellite data and it enables them to get involved with Copernicus data without the need for any specialist skills.

This programme also offers companies, like Pixalytics, the opportunity to develop a range of products and services based on the data. We already have products using Sentinel-1, and are in the process of developing ones with Sentinel-2 and Sentinel-3. Exciting times in Earth observation!

We wish Sentinel-3B well as it sets forth on its journey!

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.

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!

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!

Flywheels Spinning At Data.Space

The Data.Space Conference took place last week in Glasgow. It was an interesting, thought-provoking and useful event, which felt very friendly and was distinguished by the seniority of the attendees with a lot of companies were represented by CEO’s, MD’s and owners/founders.

The event began with the session ‘Listening to our Earth’ with presentations from Spire, Hawkeye360, KSAT, CGI UK and Promos Ventures. We were particularly caught by the idea from Peter Platzer of Spire, who talked about the flywheel and how you need to build momentum within companies to move from good to great, in particular focussing on making a tenfold improvement on what currently exists.

Sam gave her presentation in the second session on ‘Looking at our Earth’, which can be accessed here. We found it encouraging that some of the key messages that we picked out were echoed by other presenters, both in this session and others. The common themes highlighted included:

  • Stop focussing on imagery, and focus more on customer needs.
  • Demonstrate the problem that the Earth Observation (EO) data solves and the value it adds.
  • The fact that the data comes from space isn’t critical to the customer.

We had a number of people come up after Samantha’s presentation to say how much they enjoyed it, which is always good! Interestingly, hers was not the only presentation that Pixalytics got mentioned in. Our blog on ‘Earth Observation Satellites in Space’ was name checked by Will Cadell, CEO of Sparkgeo, in the session after lunch. A highlight of which was Grega Milcinski, CEO Sinergise, demonstrating the possibilities of the Sentinel Hub and how they are making a lot of their code available on GitHub to enable others to build on it.

The second day began with a thought provoking session on using EO to create a better planet. Temporal resolution, file sizes, lack of internet facilities and the need to have quick simple maps was highlighted as a challenge to using EO data in disaster relief scenarios. Access to datasets was highlighted by Tony Long, Global Fishing Watch, as a barrier to providing a planet wide view of what is happening. It was also great to listen to Steve Lee from Astrosat talk about their experiences of two UK Space Agency International Partnership Programme projects, and pick up some pointers for the ones we’re involved in.

As a micro company, the second session of this day was fascinating to us giving an overview of what investors and venture capital people look for in companies. It was heartening to hear that data analytics is seen as having a lot of value, but less positive was that the vast majority of funding in this area is going into the US. It was also noted that these funders aren’t interested in funding research, they want to get in on the ‘Last Mile’ of a product or service – making us wonder whether we would ever be attractive to investors!

Pixalytics Stand at Data.Space

Throughout the conference we manned our small table, surrounded by companies with the obligatory pop-up banners. We stood alone bare backed as we flew to Glasgow on Easyjet and a pop-up banner would have been an extra bag! We had lots of interesting conversations over potential collaborations, new customers, product ideas and solutions to challenges; and we even managed to sell a couple of copies of our book! We were able to demonstrate our portal, and we got some really good feedback. We’ll be looking for more feedback and some beta testers over the coming weeks – please get in touch in you’re interested! Finally, we‘d also like to commend the fantastic food offering at the event, which had lots of lovely Scottish notes.

Overall, this was a great event and we’ll certainly be looking to go back next year!

Five Learning Points For Developing An Earth Observation Product Portal

Landsat mosaic image of the Isle of Wight. Data courtesy of NASA.

This week we’re gently unveiling our Pixalytics Portal at the DATA.SPACE 2018 Conference taking place in Glasgow.

We’ve not attended DATA.SPACE before, but great feedback from some of the last years attendees convinced us to come. It’s an international conference focusing on the commercial opportunities available through the exploitation of space-enabled data and so it seemed the perfect place to demonstrate our new development.

Regular readers will know we’ve had the product portal idea for a little while, but it often went to the back of the work queue when compared to existing work, bid preparation and our other developments. Hence, six months ago we pinpointed the DATA.SPACE as our unveiling event!

On the 1st and 2nd February at Technology & Innovation Centre in Glasgow we have a stand where we’re inviting everyone to come up and have a look at the portal and give us feedback on the idea, principles and the look and feel of the portal.

We’re demonstrating five products, and we’re looking to expand this, these are:

  • Landscape Maps of the UK
  • Water Extent Mapping
  • Flood Water Mapping
  • Coastal Airborne Lidar Survey Planning Datasets
  • Open Ocean Water Quality Parameters

We’re not just attending, we’re exhibiting and Sam’s presenting!! So we’re going to have the full triumvirate conference experience. Sam is presenting in the first day’s second session titled ‘Looking at our Earth’ which starts at 11.10am. Her presentation is called ‘Growing Earth Observation By Being More Friendly.’

Developing this portal to its current state has been a really interesting journey. When we began we didn’t know why some of the larger companies haven’t cracked this already! Six months later and we’ve started to understand the challenges!

We thought it might be helpful to reveal are five top learning points for any other SME’s in our industry considering developing a portal. They are:

  1. Challenging the Digital e-commerce Process: Standard digital e-commerce systems allow customers to purchase a product and then download it immediately. The need to have an additional step of a few minutes, or even hours, to undertake data processing complicates things. It means that simple off-the-shelf plug-ins won’t work.
  2. Don’t Go for Perfection: Building a perfect portal will take time. We’ve adopted the approach of Eric Ries, author of The Startup Way, who advocates building a system for ten purchases. We’re perhaps a bit beyond that, but certainly we know that this will only be the first iteration of our portal.
  3. Linking The Moving Parts: Our portal has a web-front end, a cloud processing backend and the need to download requested data. We’ve tried to limit the amount of data and processing needed, but we can’t eliminate it entirely. This means there are a lot of moving parts to get right, and a lot of error capturing to be done!
  4. Legal & Tax issues: Sorting out the products is only one part of the process, don’t forget to do the legal and tax side as that has implications on your approach. We have learnt a lot about the specific requirements of digital services in e-commerce!
  5. Have a deadline: We chose to exhibit at DATA.SPACE to give us a deadline. We knew if we didn’t have a hard deadline we’d still be debating the products to include, and have developed none of them! The deadline has moved us really close to having a portal.

If you’re at DATA.SPACE this week, please come up and say hello. If you’ve got a few minutes to spare we’d love to get you feedback on our portal.