Looking To Earth Observation’s Future

Artist’s view of Sentinel-3. Image courtesy of ESA–Pierre Carril.

The future is very much the theme for Earth Observation (EO) in Europe this week.

One of the biggest potential impacts for the industry could come out of a meeting that took place yesterday, 7 November, in Tallinn, Estonia as part of European Space Week. It was a meeting between the European Union (EU) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to discuss the next steps for the Copernicus programme beyond 2020. This is important in terms of not only continuing the current Sentinel missions, but also expanding what is monitored. There are concerns over gaps in coverage for certain types of missions which Europe could help to fill.

As an EO SME we’re intrigued to see the outcomes of these discussions as they include a focus on how to leverage Copernicus data more actively within the private sector. According to a recent Industry Survey by the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC), there are just over 450 EO companies operating in Europe, and 66% of these are micro companies like Pixalytics – defined by having less than ten employees. This rises to 95% of all EO European companies if you include small businesses – with between 10 and 50 employees.

Therefore, if the EU/ESA is serious about developing the entrepreneurial usage of Copernicus data, it will be the small and micro companies that will make the difference. As these companies grow, they will need high skilled employees to support them.

Looking towards the next generation of EO scientists, the UK Space Agency announced seven new outreach projects this week inspire children to get involved in space specifically and more widely, to increase interest in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. The seven projects are:

  1. Glasgow Science Festival: Get me into orbit!
  2. Triathlon Trust: Space to Earth view
  3. Mangorolla CIC: Space zones ‘I’m a Scientist’ and ‘I’m an Engineer’
  4. Institute for Research in Schools: MELT: Monitoring the Environment, Learning for Tomorrow
  5. The Design and Technology Association: Inspiring the next generation: design and technology in space
  6. European Space Education Resource Office-UK: James Webb Space Telescope: Design challenge
  7. Children’s Radio UK (Fun Kids): Deep Space High – UK Spaceports

There will be a total of £210,000 invested in these. We’re particularly excited to see the MELT project which will get students to use EO data to analyse what is happening at the two poles.

Each of these elements will help shape the EO industry in this country. With the UK committed to remaining within ESA, decisions on the future of the Copernicus programme will provide a strong strategic direction for both the space and EO industries in Europe. Delivering on that direction will require the next generation workforce who will come from the children studying STEM subjects now.

Both the strategic direction, and associated actions to fulfil those ambitions, are vital for future EO success.

Brexit: Science & Space

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

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

Brexit currently dominates UK politics. Whilst it’s clear the UK is leaving the European Union (EU) in March 2019, the practical impact, and consequences, are still a confused fog hanging over everything. The UK Government Department for Exiting the European Union has been issuing position papers to set out how it sees the UK’s future arrangements with the EU.

Last week, the ‘Collaboration in science and innovation: a future partnership paper’ was issued. Given our company’s focus we were eager to see what was planned. Unfortunately, like a lot of the UK Government pronouncements on Brexit, it is high on rhetoric, but low on any helpful, or new, information or clarity.

It begins with a positive, but perhaps rather obvious, statement, stating that one of the UK’s core objectives is to ‘seek agreement to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives.’

Future Partnership with EU Principles
Key aspects of the UK’s ambition for the future partnership include:

  • Science & Innovation collaboration is not only maintained, but strengthened.
  • With its strong research community, the UK wants an ambitious agreement for continued research co-operation.
  • Government wants the UK to be a hub for international talent in research, and to welcome the brightest and best people from around the world.

The principles are followed by four particular areas the UK wants to discuss with the EU. Interestingly, it specifically outlines how non-EU countries currently participate in each of these areas, which are Research & Innovation Framework Programmes, Space Programmes, Nuclear R&D and Defence R&D.

Research & Innovation Framework Programmes
Horizon 2020 is highlighted as the UK ranks top across the EU in terms of contracts and participants in it. The Government confirms its commitment to underwriting any projects submitted whilst the UK is still an EU member.

Support for this programme is good, however with an end date of 2020 it is going to be equally important to be a strong partner of whatever research funding programme that is going to follow.

Space Programmes
As we have described before the European Space Agency is not an EU institution, and so is not impacted by Brexit – a fact reinforced by the paper. Three key EU, rather than ESA, led space programmes are highlighted:

  • Galileo Navigation and Positioning System – Issues here surround both the use of the system and its ongoing development. UK firms have been key suppliers for this work including Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), Qinetiq, CGI, Airbus and Scisys.
  • Copernicus – The Copernicus Earth Observation data is freely available to anyone in the world. The key element here is about being at the table to influence the direction. Although, the paper does refer to existing precedents for third party participation.
  • Space Surveillance and Tracking – this is a new programme.

The paper states that given the unique nature of space programmes, the ‘EU and UK should discuss all options for future cooperation including new arrangements.’

What Is Not Said
There are a lot of positive and welcome words here, but also a huge amount unsaid, for example:

  • Interconnectivity: Science and innovation happens when researchers work together, so the UK’s approach to the movement of people is fundamental. Will the brightest and best be allowed to come and work here, and will they want to?
  • Education: Education is fundamental to this area, yet it does not merit a single mention in the paper. New researchers and early career scientists benefit hugely from programmes such as Erasmus, will our involvement in these continue?
  • Financial Contribution: How much is the UK willing to pay to be part of science and innovation programmes? The paper notes any financial contribution will have to be weighed against other spending priorities. Not exactly hugely encouraging.
  • Contractual Issues: Part of the issue with Galileo is that the contracts specifically exclude non-EU countries from involvement.. Whilst, it is possible to see that the UK could negotiate use of Galileo, continued involvement as a supplier may be more difficult.

Conclusion
The UK wants dialogue with the EU on far-reaching science and innovation agreement. This ambition is to be applauded, but we are a very long way away from that point. We hope both parties are able to work together to get there.

Brexit Biting for UK Space Industry

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

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

UK companies involved in European Commission space programmes face an uncertain future according to media reports over the last week. The Financial Times reported that the European Commission wanted two key clauses in the contracts for work on the next part of the €10 bn Galileo Satellite Navigation System. These would allow the Commission to:

  • Cancel the contracts, without penalty, of any supplier who is no longer based in an European Union (EU) member state; and then
  • Charge that supplier all costs associated with finding their replacements.

Clearly, this poses a huge risk to UK companies given the fact that the UK has indicated its intention to leave the EU in 2019 by triggering Article 50. We wrote about the potential impacts of Brexit last year, and whilst we did pick up concerns over Galileo we didn’t see this coming!

Should the UK Space Industry be concerned?
Yes!

Despite reports to the contrary, this does not mean we are leaving the European Space Agency (ESA). We are very much remaining part of ESA, something that was confirmed at the ministerial in December. This solely relates to programmes owned, and funded, by the European Union (EU). However, it is concerning for two key reasons:

  • Anyone who has tried to negotiate contract terms with large governmental organisations will be aware that it tends to be a binary take it or leave it scenario. Therefore, if these clauses are in the contract, then it is highly likely companies will have to sign up to them to get the work.
  • It may not just be Galileo, the Copernicus Programme could be next. Copernicus is also an EU programme, and therefore it has to be a possibility that they may apply the same clauses to future Copernicus tenders. Galileo isn’t something Pixalytics is involved with, but if this was extended to Copernicus we’d be potentially impacted and would need to make choices.

What Can UK Companies Do?
The options are limited:

  • Bid anyway! Accept the potential financial risk, or hope that it will get resolved within the various Brexit negotiations. Given the size of these contracts, it will be a brave CEO who goes down this route.
  • Not bidding for any Galileo contract is probably the financially prudent option, but equally it removes a significant revenue stream.
  • Move to another European Country. I think there will be a number of companies who will be looking at moving some, or all, of their operations to another EU member state.

Any Causes For Optimism?
Not really, but there are tiny strands of hope.

  • Security – A key issue with Galileo is security. Currently, all EU members have agreements on security and when the UK leaves the EU, it leaves that agreement. Of course, security is just one of hundreds of agreements the UK will be hoping to discuss with the EU through Brexit negations. If security agreements are reached with the UK, maybe the position will change.
  • UK Election – Whilst writing this blog, the UK Prime Minister has announced a General Election in June. Parliamentary changes may influence the type of Brexit we have, but again it is highly unlikely.

It was fairly obvious, despite the contrary political rhetoric, that Brexit would have huge consequences on the UK’s relationship with Europe.

The UK’s space industry looks as though it will be at the forefront of those consequences. Forget 2019, the bite of Brexit is being felt today!

Brexit and the Earth Observation Market

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

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

Last week the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU). For us it was sad day, evidenced by the fact that on voting day Sam was at the European Association of Remote Sensing Laboratories (EARSeL) Symposium in Bonn, Germany; and I was in Brussels having attended the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) Annual General Meeting the day before – I should say we had both already submitted our postal votes!

This obvious topic for this week is what Brexit means for the UK Space Market, and in turn what it means for us:

European Space Agency (ESA)
ESA is not the EU. It has a different membership and different rules. The UK can remain part of ESA even if it leaves the EU, as evidenced by Norway and Switzerland’s membership, and even Canada’s associate membership.

However, at the ESA Ministerial in December member countries will need to declare how much money they intended to contribute towards ESA programmes. ESA operates a geo-return principle which dictates that countries cannot receive more money back than they put in, and therefore the decision on how much funding to commit at the December meeting will be vital for the UK Space Industry.

At the moment there is a power vacuum in this country following the resignation of the Prime Minister, and it would appear that no major decisions will be made on the future direction of the country until the new Prime Minister is appointed in September. Given the new Prime Minister will want to set up his own Executive arrangements and that the most pressing matter will be Brexit, it is not clear who will be taking the significant decision on the UK’s ESA Contribution.

Lack of commitment at this point has the potential to damage the UK Space Industry far more than Brexit.

European Union
Despite the assertion above that the EU and ESA are different bodies, they are linked organisations. They have a joint European Space Strategy and the EU is the biggest financial contributor to ESA’s budget. In addition, the EU owns a number of programmes such as Copernicus and the Galileo positioning, navigation & timing network.

Outside the EU the UK will probably no longer have a voice within these programmes and it is unlikely the siting of significant infrastructure related to these programmes, such as ground segments, will include this country. Hence, even remaining an active participant within ESA, it is hard to argue against the fact that the UK’s role in the future of the European space industry will diminish.

Single Market
The space industry, like other industries, currently benefits from the single market which makes it easier for European businesses to trade with each other. It is clear that most of our businesses, and politicians, feel that this is a benefit they’d like to keep. The question is whether they will be willing to pay the EU’s price?

If they do, then it is likely that change will be limited. However, if they don’t and the UK leaves the Single Market then trade with Europe will become more difficult. It will of course continue, but there may be tariffs, limitations on exports/imports and the potential for businesses to open or close offices within the UK or Europe to best maintain their access to both the UK and European markets.

Scientific Collaboration
We collaborate with a lot of EU companies, scientists and students. Now again there is no suggestion that this would stop, but everything will become more complicated.

  • How easy and quickly will people be able to get visa to travel to Europe or vice versa? This could impact attendance at meetings or conferences.
  • Will European Conferences still come to the UK?
  • What will be the impact on placement programmes such as ERASMUS? ERASMUS has different membership to the EU, like ESA, but will the UK still be as attractive to those students?

Of real scientific concern is the emerging anecdotal evidence that UK researchers are being removed from EU based funding bids, such as Horizon 2020, as the consortia fear their bids will be less attractive if the UK is involved. If true, this is will impact scientific research, at least in the short term until our involved in such programmes is clarified.

UK Space Industry
The UK has an expanding, exciting and innovative space industry and the future is certainly not dependant on us being part of the EU. However, it would be naïve to suggest that we don’t face challenges ahead following Brexit. There are a number of key elements we need in place to ensure that our industry can continue to thrive:

  1. Commitment to our continued membership of ESA, supported by funding at the December ministerial.
  2. Commitment that the resources the UK Science and Space sectors received via EU funding, such as Horizon 2020, must be replaced with equivalent UK based funding calls.
  3. Not to let the Brexit negotiations overtake everything else. For example, it must not stop continuing progress on elements such as a UK Spaceport.

Pixalytics
We have a variety of strong European links including:

  • European contracts
  • Scientific collaboration with European Researchers/Institutes
  • European placement students spending time working with us
  • Contracts that are either directly, or indirectly, based on ESA funding
  • Membership of European Associations

We believe we have a strong business, with good value products and a positive brand. However, like all other UK businesses, we are going to need to assess our current business strategy, and decisions we need to make, through the prism of Brexit as further information is known.

Conclusion
Almost one week on from the UK vote, I think our position is best summed up by paraphrasing the famous statement of US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld:

There are some things we do not know, but there are also things we don’t know we don’t know and those will be the difficult ones.

Or to put it more succinctly, we face months, and years, of uncertainty! What does everyone else think?

Satellite Data Continuity: Hero or Achilles Heel?

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

Average thickness of Arctic sea ice in spring as measured by CryoSat between 2010 and 2015. Image courtesy of ESA/CPOM

One of satellite remote sensing’s greatest strengths is the archive of historical data available, allowing researchers to analyse how areas change over years or even decades – for example, Landsat data has a forty year archive. It is one of the unique aspects of satellite data, which is very difficult to replicate by other measurement methods.

However, this unique selling point is also proving an Achilles Heel to industry as well, as highlighted last week, when a group of 179 researchers issued a plea to the European Commission (EC) and the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide a replacement for the aging Cryosat-2 satellite.

Cryosat-2 was launched in 2010, after the original Cryosat was lost during a launch failure in 2005, and is dedicated to the measurement of polar ice. It has a non sun-synchronous low earth orbit of just over 700 km with a 369 day ground track cycle, although it does image the same areas on Earth every 30 days. It was originally designed as three and half year mission, but is still going after six years. Although, technically it has enough fuel to last at least another five years, the risk of component failure is such that researchers are concerned that it could cease to function at any time

The main instrument onboard is a Synthetic Aperture Interferometric Radar Altimeter (SIRAL) operating in the Ku Band. It has two antennas that form an interferometer, and operates by sending out bursts of pulses at intervals of only 50 microseconds with the returning echoes correlated as a single measurement; whereas conventional altimeters send out single pulses and wait for the echo to return before sending out another pulse. This allows it to measure the difference in height between floating ice and seawater to an accuracy of 1.3cm, which is critical to measurement of edges of ice sheets.

SIRAL has been very successful and has offered a number of valuable datasets including the first complete assessment of Arctic sea-ice thickness, and measurements of the ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland. However, these datasets are simply snapshots in time. Scientists want to continue these measurements in the coming years to improve our understanding of how sea-ice and ice sheets are changing.

It’s unlikely ESA will provide a follow on satellite, as their aim is to develop new technology and not data continuity missions. This was part of the reason why the EU Copernicus programme of Sentinel satellites was established, whose aim is to provide reliable and up to date information on how our planet and climate is changing. The recently launched Sentinel-3 satellite can undertake some of the measurements of Cryosat-2, it is not a replacement.

Whether the appeal for a Cryosat-3 will be heard is unclear, but what is clear is thought needs to be given to data continuity with every mission. Once useful data is made available, there will be a desire for a dataset to be continued and developed.

This returns us to the title of the blog. Is data continuity the hero or Achilles Heel for the satellite remote sensing community?

Footprints in Remote Sensing

Plymouth Sound on 25th July 2014 from Landsat 8: Image courtesy of USGS/NASA Landsat

Plymouth Sound on 25th July 2014 from Landsat 8: Image courtesy of USGS/NASA Landsat

I’ve just finished my summer with Pixalytics! As I wrote a blog when I first arrived, I thought it would be nice symmetry to finish my ERASMUS+ placement with a second one.

When I started my internship, I had very little real-world experience. I was really excited and really nervous, but this internship has been a huge eye opener for me. I spent the first week understanding and reviewing the practicals within Pixalytics’ forthcoming book ‘The Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing’ to check for any errors prior to publication, which gave me a good understanding of the basics of remote sensing.

Over the next few weeks I applied my new knowledge to finding and downloading Landsat data for a commercial client. I then downloaded additional Landsat datasats and compared them to altimetry datasets to look for patterns between the two sources for the NovaSAR project. My other main job was processing Landsat 8 data to create a UK-wide vegetation mosaic. This needed cloud free images which is really difficult because the weather in UK is always cloudy, even in summer!

Plymouth is a deeply captivating city with astonishingly magnificent views and landscapes. You get the urban city, fantastic scenery and all around Plymouth are nice beaches, cities and the Dartmoor National Park which is always worth a visit. It’s a safe quiet place where everything is so close together that you can walk everywhere. The people are generally friendly and warm-hearted, and the experience of living in the Plymouth for two months has helped me to gain a more fluent level of English and a better understanding of the British culture – I now know why they constantly talk about the weather!

Overall, I’ve learnt a lot from the internship including practical skills that I will be able to carry with me to my next position. Needless to say, I will miss Pixalytics and Plymouth very dearly, and I’m thankful for the chance to work and live there. ERASMUS+ is an great opportunity that everyone should try to be part of, and I totally recommend going abroad because is an experience that stays with you to rest of your life.

Bye Plymouth, Bye Pixalytics!

Selin

Blog by Selin Cakaloglu, Erasmus+ Intern at Pixalytics

Interpretation is the Key to Remote Sensing

Landsat 8 Image, acquired on 19 May 2014. Data courtesy of NASA/USGS.

Landsat 8 Image, acquired on 19 May 2014. Data courtesy of NASA/USGS.

Landsat 8 Image, acquired on 20th May 2015. Data courtesy of NASA/USGS.

Landsat 8 Image, acquired on 20th May 2015. Data courtesy of NASA/USGS.

Remote sensing just produces pretty satellite images doesn’t it? Whilst remote sensing can produce fantastic looking images, the interpretation of the imagery is important. Take the two images at the top of the blog, both are from South America and were acquired by Landsat 8; although they were taken on different days.

In the centre of each image is a white landscape feature; the question is, what are the features and are they the same thing? White colour patches on satellite images can represent a number of things. It could indicate a snow or ice feature like a glacier, or sunglint off the ocean or other body of water, it could be fog or simply be showing that there were clouds on the day that the image was acquired.

The top image with the white feature along its length is the Perito Moreno Glacier, located in the Santa Cruz Province of Argentina. It is a 250 square kilometre glacial formation that’s 30 km in length, and interestingly it is one of three Patagonian glaciers that is currently growing.

The second image is a completely different type of landscape feature, although it might be familiar to remote sensing experts! It shows the world’s largest salt flat known as Salar de Uyuni, which is located in the Daniel Campos Province in southwest Bolivia. It has a salt crust a few metres thick over a pool of brine. It’s an extremely flat area, with the altitude varying less than one meter over its 10,582 square kilometres; the flatness of the surface is used to calibrate altimeters on Earth observation satellites.

Remote sensing produces images, and these can be freely sourced from places such as NASA’s Landsat archive or the EU’s Copernicus programme; or images can be purchased from a variety of commercial providers. However getting an image is only the starting point, you need to ensure that you know what you are looking at. This is where the skill in remote sensing, whether it is in the interpretation of the actual image or in the application of scientific theory to create new data derived from the image data.

Remote sensing experts often prefer to work with the data underlying images rather than the images themselves; whereas, novices often work with the images. It’s important to realise that imagery can require interpretation and to not simply accept the face value of what is on the image.

First Small Steps in Remote Sensing

The International Space Station is seen in silhouette as it transits the moon at roughly five miles per second, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015, Woodford, VA.  Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The International Space Station is seen in silhouette as it transits the moon at roughly five miles per second, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015, Woodford, VA. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

It’s not often you get given the opportunity to travel, live in an exciting new city and get an incredible internship all in one. So when I heard about the Erasmus+ Programme I applied right away! I wanted to gain more experience in remote sensing.

When I was little I had a very big poster of the moon surface hung on my wall, it had so much detail and I would stare at it every night before I went to bed. After my parents bought my first computer, I started to search for more images of the moon and other planets and I was impressed by the complexity of what I found. This was the beginning of my fascination with remote sensing. When it came to choosing my career path, it was not hard. I knew what I wanted to become and now it sounds, and feels, right to call myself a Geomatics Engineer.

I’m currently studying two undergraduate degrees in Surveying, and Civil Engineering; but it was still hard to find an Erasmus work placement for remote sensing. I managed to find the Pixalytics Ltd with my teacher’s help, as he had previously met Dr Samantha Lavender.

After finding a place to do your internship the rest is should be easy, but not for United Kingdom. Getting my work permit from British Council was a really challenging process, and took me exactly three months. Despite doing everything right, getting responses to my emails for sponsorship was hard. It was the most awful part of the process for me, because there was nothing I could do except wait. Finally, after a lot of patience my visa arrived and I was on my way to Plymouth!

The last issue, and some people’s main concern, is getting accommodation. I did not find it hard to find a place to stay because most of the students were out of town. With a basic search on the internet I found a flat in four days, it is based a few hundred metres from the centre of Plymouth and close to the bus route to Pixalytics.

I thought I had read and traveled enough to be prepared when I stepped off the plane in London, but it was still a shock standing alone with my suitcase and hearing all the British accents around me. At first, it was difficult to adapt to the language as the accents are sometimes hard to understand. But once I’d grasped the pronunciation, I believe I’m improving every week.

Working at Pixalytics will be my first internship experience, and I am so grateful to Samantha Lavender for giving me this opportunity. Working abroad will be a memory and lesson in itself but I hope to also I hope to enhance my discipline and knowledge as well as applying my existing engineering and personal skills.

Getting my internship was a long, difficult and exhausting process, but I realized that it’s totally worth it as soon as I got to Plymouth, If anyone is thinking of applying to the Erasmus+ programme, I would totally recommend it!

Blog by Selin Cakaloglu, Erasmus+ Intern at Pixalytics