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?

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!

EO Market Is a-Changin’

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

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

Historically, if you wanted satellite Earth Observation (EO) data your first port of call was usually NASA, or NOAA for meteorological data, and more recently you’d look at the European Union’s Copernicus programme. Data from commercial operators were often only sought if the free-to-access data from these suppliers did not meet your needs.
However, to quote Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’. NASA, NOAA and Copernicus are buying, or intending to buy, data from commercial operators.

However, as with many activities there are often precedents. For example, the SeaWiFS mission was built to NASA’s specifications and launched in 1997. It was owned by the commercial organisation Orbital Sciences Corporation and NASA conducted a ‘data-buy’. They’ve moved back in this direction last month as NASA issued a Request for Information for US companies interested in participating in the Earth Observations from Private Sector Small Satellite Constellations Pilot. The aim of this programme is to identify commercial organisations collecting EO data relating to Essential Climate Variables (ECV), and then to evaluate whether this would be a cost effective approach to gathering data rather than, or alongside, launching their own satellites.

To interest NASA the companies need to have a constellation of at least three satellites in a non-geostationary orbits, and the ECV dataset will need to include details of both instrument calibration and processing techniques used. Initially, NASA plans to provide this data to researchers to undertake the evaluation. According to Space News, 11 responses to the request had been received. Discussions will take place with responding companies over the next month and it’s anticipated orders will be placed in March 2018.

NOAA is another US agency looking to the private small satellite sector through their Commercial Weather Data pilot programme. To supplement their own data collections they’ve already purchased GPS radio occupation data and are planning to buy both microwave sounding and radiometry data.

Not everyone is aware that the Copernicus Programme also purchases data from commercial sources as part of its Contributing Missions Programme. Essentially, if data is not available for any reason from the Sentinel satellites, then the equivalent data is sought from one of 30 current contributing missions which include other international partners such as NASA, but also commercial providers.

Whilst part of the drive behind this approach is to ensure data continuity, in the US the backdrop has a more long term concern with President Trump’s intention to move NASA away from EO to focus efforts on deep space exploration. It’s not been fully confirmed yet, but there is due to be a Congress budget discussion later this week and if approved it could mean the loss of the following four NASA missions:

• Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite
• Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3)
• Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder
• Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)

Whilst buying data from commercial providers may offer opportunities, it also has a number of challenges including how to buy this whilst maintaining their commitment to free-to-access data, and with the shorter lifespans of small satellites the increased pressure on calibration and validation work.

It’s clear that things are evolving in the EO market and the private sector is coming much more to the fore as a primary data supplier to researchers, national and international bodies.

Four Key Earth Observation Trends For 2018

Blue Marble image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7 1972.
Image Credit: NASA

This week we’re looking at this year’s key trends in Earth Observation (EO) that you need to know.

Rise of the Data Buckets!
EO data is big! Anyone who has tried to process EO data knows the issues of downloading and storing large files, and as more and more data becomes available these challenges will grow. Amazon recognised this issue and set up Amazon Web Services which automatically downloads all freely available data such as Copernicus and Landsat, offering people who want to process data a platform where they don’t have to download the data – for a price!

The European Commission also picked up on this and awarded four commercial contracts at the end of last year to establish Copernicus Data and Information Access Services (DIAS) which will offer scalable processing platforms for the development of value-added products and services.

The four successful DIAS consortiums are led by Serco Europe, Creotech Instruments, ATOS Integration & Airbus Defence and Space respectively, and a fifth DIAS is planned to be established by EUMETSAT. It’s hoped this will kick-start the greater use and exploitation of Copernicus data.

Continued Growth of Data
There are some exciting EO launches planned this year continuing to increase the amount of data available. Earlier this week China launched the last two satellites of the high resolution optical SuperView constellation. In addition, some of the key larger satellites going into orbit this year include:

  • ESA’s Sentinel-3B and its Aeolus wind mission.
  • NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE-FO) and the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2).
  • Japan’s Advanced Satellite with New system Architecture for Observation (ASNARO 2) which is x-band SAR radar satellite with a 1 m ground resolution.
  • NOAA’s GOES-S is the second of four upgraded weather observatories.

In addition, as we described last week, cubesats will continue to have regular launches. We are still a long way from the high watershed of EO data!

SaaS Will Become The Norm
The rise of the data buckets will encourage the Software-as-a-service (SaaS) approach to EO to become the norm. Companies will develop products and services and offer them to customers on a platform via the internet, rather than the historic bespoke application approach. For companies this will be a more effective way of using their resources and will allow them to better leverage products and services. For the customers, it will enable them greater use EO and geospatial data without the need for expert knowledge.

Pixalytics is due to launch its own Product Portal at the Data.Space 2018 conference at the end of this month.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI is becoming more and more important to EO. Part of this is the natural development of AI, however certain EO tasks are far more suited to AI. For example, change detection, identification of new artefacts in imagery, etc. These aspects have a base image and looking for differences, computers can do this much quicker than any human researcher. Although, it’s also true that humans can see artefacts much more easily than you can program a computer to identify them. Therefore, these AI applications are strongly dependent on training datasets created by humans.

However, things are now moving beyond these simple AI tasks and it’s becoming an integral part of EO products and services. For example, last year Microsoft launched their AI for Earth programme, support by a $50 m investment, which will deploy their cloud computing, AI and other technology to researchers around the world to help develop new solutions for the agriculture, biodiversity, climate change, and water challenges on the planet.

Summary
These are a snapshot of our view of the key trends. What do you think? Have we missed anything? Let us know.

Earth Observation’s Flying Start to 2018

Simulated NovaSAR-S data.

Earth Observation (EO) is taking off again in 2018 with a scheduled launch of 31 satellites next Friday, 12th January, from a single rocket by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The launch will be on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-40) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. ISRO has history of multiple launches, setting the world record in February 2017 with 104 satellites in one go.

The main payload next week will be Cartosat-2F, also known as Cartosat-2ER. It is the next satellite in a cartographic constellation which focuses on land observation. It carries two instruments, a high resolution multi-spectral imager and a panchromatic camera. It’s data is intended to be used in urban and rural applications, coastal land use, regulation and utility management.

At Pixalytics we’re particularly excited about the Carbonite-2 cubesat built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) which is on this launch. .

Carbonite-2 is a prototype mission to demonstrate the ability to acquire colour video images from space. It has been developed by Earth-i and SSTL, and carries an imaging system capable of delivering images with a spatial resolution of 1 m and colour video clips with a swath width of 5 km. Earth-i have already ordered five satellites from SSTL, as the first element of a constellation that will provide colour video and still imagery for the globe enabling the moving objects such as cars, ships or aircraft to be filmed. These satellites are planned for launch in 2019.

However, this isn’t the only cubesat with an EO interest on next week’s launch. In addition, there are:

  • KAUSAT 5 (Korea Aviation University Satellite) will observe the Earth using an infrared camera and measure the amount of radiation from its Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
  • Parikshit is a student satellite project from the Manipal Institute of Technology in India that carries a thermal infrared camera, using 7.5-13.5 µm wavelengths, and will be used to monitor urban heat islands, sea surface temperature and the thermal distribution of clouds around the Indian subcontinent.
  • Landmapper-BC3, a commercial satellite from Astro Digital in the USA to provide multispectral imagery at 22 m spatial resolution with a swath width of 220 km
  • ICEYE-X1 is a SAR microsatellite from the Finnish company ICEYE which is designed to provide near real-time SAR imagery using the S-Band. ICEYE is a recent start-up company who have raised $17 m in venture capital funding in the last few years. They hope to have a global imaging constellation by the end of 2020.

Amongst the remaining cubesats, there are a couple of really intriguing ones:

  • CNUSail 1 (Chungnam National University Sail) is a solar sail experiment from Chungnam National University in South Korea. It aims to successfully deploy a solar sail in LEO and then to de-orbit using the sail membrane as a drag-sail. There has been a lot of discussion around solar sails from propulsion systems through to mechanisms to clear space debris, so it will be fascinating to see the outcome.
  • IRVINE01 is the culmination of a STEM project started in 1999 in six public high schools in Irvine, California, which has given students the experience of building, testing and launching a cubesat to inspire the next generation of space scientists. This is a fantastic project!

We’re also really excited about the launch of the NovaSAR-S cubesat, which was also originally planned to be on this launch (as reflected in the first version of this blog). It is going to be launched later this year. NovaSAR-S, also built by SSTL, is of particular interested to Pixalytics as we’ve previously been involved in a project to simulate NovaSAR-S data and so we’re excited to see what the actual data looks like. NovaSAR-S is a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) mission using the S-Band, which will operate in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 580 km. It has four imaging modes:

  • ScanSAR mode with a swath width of 100 km at 20 m spatial resolution.
  • Maritime mode with a swath width of > 400 km and a spatial resolution of 6 m across the track and 13.7m along the track.
  • Stripmap mode with a swath width of 15-20 km and a spatial resolution of 6 m.
  • ScanSAR wide mode with a swath width of 140km and a spatial resolution of 30 m.

The data will be used for applications including flooding, disaster monitoring, forestry, ship tracking, oil spill, land cover use and classification, crop monitoring and ice monitoring. We’ve going to keep an eye out for its launch!

This is just the start of 2018, and we hope it’s piqued your interest in EO as it’s going to be an exciting year!

Big Data From Space

Last week I attended the 2017 Conference on Big Data from Space (BiDS’17) that was held in Toulouse, France. The conference was co-organised by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission (EC), and the European Union Satellite Centre (SatCen). It aimed to bring together people from multiple disciplines to stimulate the exploitation Earth Observation (EO) data collected in space.

The event started on Tuesday morning with keynotes from the various co-organising space organisations. Personally, I found the talk by Andreas Veispak, from the European Commission’s (EC) DG GROW department which is responsible for EU policy on the internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs, particularly interesting. Andreas has a key involvement in the Copernicus and Galileo programmes and described the Copernicus missions as the first building block for creating an ecosystem, which has positioned Europe as a global EO power through its “full, free and open” data policy.

The current Sentinel satellite missions will provide data continuity until at least 2035 with huge amounts of data generated, e.g., when all the Sentinel satellite missions are operational over 10 petabytes of data per year will be produced. Sentinel data has already been a huge success with current users exceeding what was expected by a factor of 10 or 20 and every product has been downloaded at least 10 times. Now, the key challenge is to support these users by providing useful information alongside the data.

The ESA presentation by Nicolaus Hanowski continued the user focus by highlighting that there are currently over 100 000 registered Copernicus data hub users. Nicolaus went on to describe that within ESA success is now being measured by use of the data for societal needs, e.g., the sustainable development goals, rather than just the production of scientific data. Therefore, one of the current aims is reduce the need for downloading by having a mutualised underpinning structure, i.e. the Copernicus Data and Information Access Services (DIAS) that will become operational in the second quarter of 2018, which will allow users to run their computer code on the data without the need for downloading. The hope is that this will allow users to focus on what they can do with the data, rather than worrying around storing it!

Charles Macmillan from JRC described their EO Data and Processing Platform (JEODPP) which is a front end based around the Jupyter Notebook that allows users to ask questions using visualisations and narrative text, instead of just though direct programming. He also noted that increasingly the data needed for policy and decision making is held by private organisations rather than government bodies.

The Tuesday afternoon was busy as I chaired the session on Information Generation at Scale. We had around 100 people who heard some great talks on varied subjects such as mass processing of Sentinel & Landsat data for mapping human settlements, 35 years of AVHRR data and large scale flood frequency maps using SAR data.

‘Application Of Earth Observation To A Ugandan Drought And Flood Mitigation Service’ poster

I presented a poster at the Wednesday evening session, titled “Application Of Earth Observation To A Ugandan Drought And Flood Mitigation Service”. We’re part of a consortium working on this project which is funded via the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme. It’s focus is on providing underpinning infrastructure for the Ugandan government so that end users, such as farmers, can benefit from more timely and accurate information – delivered through a combination of EO, modelling and ground-based measurements.

It was interesting to hear Grega Milcinski from Sinergise discuss a similar approach to users from the lessons they learnt from building the Sentinel Hub. They separated the needs of science, business and end users. They’ve chosen not to target end users due to the challenges surrounding the localisation and customisation requirements of developing apps for end users around the world. Instead they’ve focussed on meeting the processing needs of scientific and business users to give them a solid foundation upon which they can then build end user applications. It was quite thought provoking to hear this, as we’re hoping to move towards targeting these end users in the near future!

There were some key technology themes that came of the presentations at the conference:

  • Jupyter notebooks were popular for frontend visualisation and data analytics, so users just need to know some basic python to handle large and complex datasets.
  • Making use of cloud computing using tools such as Docker and Apache Spark for running multiple instances of code with integrated parallel processing.
  • Raw data and processing on the fly: for both large datasets within browsers and by having the metadata stored so you can quickly query before committing to processing.
  • Analysis ready data in data cubes, i.e. the data has been processed to a level where remote sensing expertise isn’t so critical.

It was a great thought provoking conference. If you’d like to get more detail on what was presented then a book of extended abstracts is available here. The next event is planned for 19-21 February 2019 in Munich, Germany and I’d highly recommend it!

Earth observation satellites in space in 2017?

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

Earth Observation (EO) satellites currently account for just over a third of all the operational satellites orbiting the Earth. As we described two weeks ago, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists database there were 1 738 operational satellites at the end of August 2017, and 620 of these have a main purpose of either EO or Earth Science.

This represents a massive 66% increase in the number of EO satellites from our 2016 update, and the percentage of overall active satellites is also up from one quarter. These figures demonstrate, once again, that EO is a growing industry.

What do Earth observation satellites do?
Looking more closely at what EO satellites actually do demonstrates that despite increases in satellite numbers in almost all categories, it’s clearly growth in optical imaging which is the behind this significant increase. The purposes of active EO satellites in 2017 are:

  • Optical Imaging: 327 satellites representing a 98% increase on last year
  • Radar imaging: 45 satellites, a 32% increase on last year
  • Infrared imaging: 7 satellites, no change to last year
  • Meteorology: 64 satellites, a 73% increase on last year
  • Earth Science: 60 satellites, a 13% increase on last year
  • Electronic intelligence: 50 satellites, a 6% increase on last year
  • 16 satellites with other purposes, a 133% increase on last year
  • 51 satellites simply list EO as their purpose, a 100% increase on last year

Who controls Earth observation satellites?
Despite the huge increase in EO satellites, the number of countries who control them has not seen the same growth. This year there are 39 different countries listed with EO satellites, an increase of only 15% on last year. In addition, there are satellites run by multinational agencies such as the European Space Agency (ESA).

The USA leads the way controlling over half the EO satellites, although this is largely due to Planet who account for 30% on their own! Following USA is China with 14.4%, and then come India, Japan and Russia who each have over 3%.

The USA is followed by China with about 20%, and Japan and Russia come next with around 5% each. The UK is only listed as controller on 4 satellites all related to the DMC constellation, although we are also involved in the ESA satellites.

Size of Earth observation satellites
It’s interesting to look out the size breakdown of these satellites which shows the development of the small satellite. For this breakdown, we’ve classed satellites into four groups:

  • Large satellites with a launch mass of over 500kg
  • Small satellites with a launch mass between 100 and 500 kg.
  • Microsats with a launch mass between 10 and 100 kg.
  • Nanosats/Cubesats with a launch mass below 10 kg.

For the current active EO satellites there are:

  • 186 large satellites equating to 30.00%
  • 74 small satellites equating to 7.26%
  • 100 microsats equating to 16.13%
  • 215 Nanosats/Cubesats equating to 34.68%
  • The remaining 45 satellites do not have a launch mass specified.

Who uses the Earth observation satellites?

There has also been significant movement in the breakdown of EO satellites users since 2016. The influence of small commercial satellites undertaking optical imaging is again apparent. In 2017 the main users for EO were:

  • Commercial users with 44.68% of satellites (up from 21% in 2016)
  • Government users with 30.81% (down from 44% in 2016)
  • Military users with 19.35% (down from 30% in 2016)
  • Civil users with 5.16% (approximately the same as in 2016)

It should be noted that some of these satellites have multiple users.

Orbits of Earth observation satellites
In terms of altitude, unsurprisingly the vast majority, 92.25%, of EO satellites are in low earth orbits, 6.45% are in geostationary orbits and 1.3% are in an elliptical orbits.
There is a much greater variation in type of orbits:

  • 415 in a sun-synchronous orbit
  • 125 in a non-polar inclined orbit
  • 17 in a polar orbit
  • 8 in an equatorial orbit
  • 5 in an elliptical orbit
  • 5 in a Molniya orbit (highly eccentric elliptical orbits of approximately 12 hours)
  • 45 satellites do not have a type of orbit listed

Few interesting facts about active Earth observation satellites

  • Oldest active EO satellite is the Brazilian SCD-1 Meteorology/Earth Science satellite.
  • Valentine’s Day (14th February) 2017 saw Planet launch its Flock 3P meaning that 88 active EO satellites were launched on that day.
  • Most popular launch site is Satish Dhawan Space Centre operated by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who have put 169 into space.
  • ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle is also the most popular launch vehicle with 114 satellites.
  • The EO satellite furthest away from the Earth is the USA’s Electronic Intelligence satellite Trumpet 3 which has an apogee of 38 740 km.

What’s next?
It’s not clear whether the rapid growth in the number of EO satellites will continue into 2018. Planet, one of the key drivers, announced earlier this month that they had successfully completed their objective to image the globe’s entire landmass every day – which is a massive achievement!

That’s not say that Planet won’t push on further with new ideas and technologies, and other companies may move into that space too. China launched a number of EO satellites last weekend and there are already a number of interesting satellites planned for launch between now and the middle of 2018 including, Cartosat-2ER, NovaSAR-S, GOES-S and Sentinel-3B to name a few. .

One thing is for certain, there is a lot collected EO data out there, and it is increasing by the day!

To TEDx Speaking and Beyond!

Back in April I received an invitation to speak at the ‘One Step Beyond’ TEDx event organised at the National Space Centre in Leicester, with my focus on the Blue Economy and Earth Observation (EO).

We’ve been to a few TEDx events in the past and they’ve always been great, and so I was excited to have the opportunity to join this community. Normally, I’m pretty relaxed about public speaking. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to say, but don’t assemble my slides until a couple of days beforehand. This approach has developed in part because I used to lecture – where I got used to talking for a while with a few slides – but also because I always like to take some inspiration from the overall mood of the event I’m talking at. This can be through hearing other speakers, attending workshops or even just walking around the local area.

TEDx, however, was different. There was a need to have the talk ready early for previewing and feedback, alongside producing stunning visuals and having a key single message. So, for a change, I started with a storyboard.

My key idea was to get across the sense of wonder I and many other scientists share in observing the oceans from space, whilst also emphasising that anyone can get involved in protecting this natural resource. I echoed the event title by calling my talk “Beyond the blue ocean” as many people think of the ocean as just a blue waterbody. However, especially from space, we can see the beauty, and complexity, of colour variations influenced by the microscopic life and substances dissolved and suspended within it.

I began with an with an image called the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ that was taken by Voyager 1 at a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth, and then went with well-known ‘Blue Marble’ image before zooming into what we see from more conventional EO satellites. I also wanted to take the audience beyond just optical wavelengths and so displayed microwave imagery from Sentinel-1 that’s at a similar spatial resolution to my processed 15 m resolution Sentinel-2 data that was also shown.

Dr Samantha Lavender speaking at the One Step Beyond TEDx event in Leicester. Photo courtesy of TEDxLeicester

The satellite imagery included features such as wind farms, boats and phytoplankton blooms I intended to discuss. However, this didn’t quite to go to plan on my practice run through! The talk was in the planetarium at the National Space Centre, which meant the screen was absolutely huge – as you can see in the image to the right. However, with the lights on in the room the detail in the images was really difficult to see. The solution for the talk itself was to have the planetarium in darkness and myself picked out by two large spotlights, meaning that the image details were visible to the audience but I couldn’t see the audience myself.

The evening itself took place on the 21st September, and with almost two hundred in the audience I was up first. I was very happy with how it went and the people who spoke to me afterwards said they were inspired by what they’d seen. You can see for yourself, as the talk can be found here on the TEDx library. Let me know what you think!

I was followed by two other fantastic speakers who gave inspiring presentations and these are also up on the TEDx Library. Firstly, Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Deputy Head of Polar Oceans team at British Antarctic Survey discussed “How to conduct a planetary health check”; and she was followed by Corentin Guillo, CEO and Founder of Bird.i, who spoke about “Space entrepreneurship, when thinking outside the box is not enough”.

The whole event was hugely enjoyable and the team at TEDx Leicester did an amazing job of organising it. It was good to talk to people after the event, and it was fantastic that seventy percent of the audience were aged between 16 and 18. We need to do much more of this type of outreach activities to educate and inspire the next generation of scientists. Of course, for me, the day also means that I can now add TEDx Speaker to my biography!