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!

Have you read the top Pixalytics blogs of 2017?

World Cloud showing top 100 words from Pixalytics 2017 blogs

In our final blog of the year, we’re looking back at our most popular posts of the last twelve months. Have you read them all?

Of the top ten most read blogs, nine were actually written in previous years. These were:

You’ll notice that this list is dominated by our annual reviews of the number of satellites, and Earth observation satellites, orbiting the Earth. It often surprises us to see where these blogs are quoted and we’ve been included in articles on websites for Time Magazine, Fortune Magazine and the New Statesman to name a few!

So despite only being published in November this year coming in as the fourth most popular blog of the year was, unsurprisingly:

For posts published in 2017, the other nine most popular were:

2017 has been a really successful one for our website. The number of the views for the year is up by 75%, whilst the number of unique visitors has increased by 92%!

Whilst hard work, we do enjoy writing our weekly blog – although staring at a blank screen on a Wednesday morning without any idea of what we’ll publish a few hours later can be daunting!

We’re always delighted at meetings and conferences when people come up and say they read the blog. It’s nice to know that we’re read both within our community, as well as making a small contribution to informing and educating people outside the industry.

Thanks for reading this year, and we hope we can catch your eye again next year.

We’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and a very successful 2018!

Merry Christmas!

UK at night. November 2017 monthly composite from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite,(Day/Night Band). Image and Data processing courtesy of Earth Observation Group, NOAA/NCEI.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

AND BEST WISHES FOR 2018 

from everyone at Pixalytics

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.

5 Signs You Work In Earth Observation

Sentinel-2A image of UK south east coastline, acquired on 4th September 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Do you recognise yourself in any these five signs? if so, you’re definitely working in the Earth observation industry.

  1. You have a favourite satellite or instrument, or image search tool.
  2. When a satellite image appears on television, you tell everyone in the room which satellite/sensor it came from.
  3. You’ve got an irrational hatred for clouds (unless you’re working on clouds or using radar images).
  4. Anything space related happens and your family asks whether you’re involved with it, and thinks you know everyone who works at NASA or ESA.
  5. Your first reaction to seeing an interesting location isn’t that you should plan to go there. Instead, you wonder whether it would make a good satellite image.

We tick all of these signs at Pixalytics! Last week we suffered from number five when we saw a snippet from the season finale of the UK TV programme ‘Liar’. It wasn’t a programme we’d watched, but as we caught an atmospheric panning shot of the location, and only one thought when through our minds, ‘That would make a great satellite image!’

It was a stunning shot of a marshland with water interwoven between islands. Without knowing anything about the programme, we were expecting it to have been filmed in a far flung Nordic location. Following a bit of impromptu googling we were surprised to discover it was actually Tollesbury on the Essex coast in the UK. It also turns out that we were late to the party on the discovery of the programme and the location.

Sentinel-2A image of Mersea Island and surrounding area, acquired on 4th September 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

The image on the right shows Mersea Island, which has brown saltmarshes above it within the adjacent inlets of the Blackwater Estuary. To the left of the island is the village of Tollesbury and the Tollesbury marina, which is located within the saltmarshes. This area is the largest of the saltmarshes of Essex, but only the fifth largest of the UK. They play a key role in flood protection and can reduce the height of damaging waves in storm surge conditions by 20%. However, they are disappearing due to sea erosion that’s caused a sixty percent reduction in the last 20 years.

The image itself is a zoomed in pseudo-true-colour composite at 10 m spatial resolution using data acquired by Sentinel-2A on the 4th September 2017 – a surprisingly cloud free day for the UK. The full Sentinel-2 image can be seen at the top of the blog.

As often happens when we look in detail at satellite images, something catches our eye. This time it was the three bluish looking strips just above Mersea island. These are the 82,944 solar panels which make up Langenhoe Solar Farm, and have the capacity to generate 21.15 MW of solar power.

So how many of you recognise our signs of working in Earth observation? Any you think we’ve missed? Get in touch, let us know!

3 Ways Earth Observation is Tackling Food Security

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

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

One of the key global challenges is food security. A number of reports issued last week, coinciding with World Food Day on the 16th October, demonstrated how Earth Observation (EO) could play a key part in tackling this.

Climate change is a key threat to food security. The implications were highlighted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report who described potential changes to suitable farmland for rainfed crops. Rainfed farming accounts for approximately 75 percent of global croplands, and it’s predicated that these locations will change in the coming years. Increased farmland will be available in North America, western Asia, eastern Asia and South America, whilst there will be a decline in Europe and the southern Great Plains of the US.

The work undertaken by USGS focussed on looking at the impact of temperature extremes and the associated changes in seasonality of soil moisture conditions. The author of the study, John Bradford said “Our results indicate the interaction of soil moisture and temperature extremes provides a powerful yet simple framework for understanding the conditions that define suitability for rainfed agriculture in drylands.” Soil moisture is a product that Pixalytics is currently working on, and its intriguing to see that this measurement could be used to monitor climate change.

Given that this issue may require farmers to change crops, work by India’s Union Ministry of Agriculture to use remote sensing data to identify areas best suited for growing different crops is interesting. The Coordinated Horticulture Assessment and Management using geoinformatics (CHAMAN) project has used data collected by satellites, including the Cartosat Series and RESOURCESAT-1, to map 185 districts in relation to the best conditions for growing bananas, mangos, citrus fruits, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and chilli peppers.

The results for eight states in the north east of the country will be presented in January, with the remainder a few months later, identifying the best crop for each district. Given that India is already the second largest producer of fruit and vegetables in the world, this is a fascinating strategic development to their agriculture industry.

The third report was the announcement of a project between the University of Queensland and the Chinese Academy of Sciences which hopes to improve the accuracy of crop yield predictions. EO data with an improved spatial, and temporal, resolution is being used alongside biophysical information to try to predict crop yield at a field scale in advance of the harvest. It is hoped that this project will produce an operational product through this holistic approach.

These are some examples of the way in which EO data is changing the way we look at agriculture, and potential help provide improved global food security in the future.

Inspiring the Next Generation of EO Scientists

Artist's rendition of a satellite - 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Last week, whilst Europe’s Earth Observation (EO) community was focussed on the successful launch of Sentinel-5P, over in America Tuesday 10th October was Earth Observation Day!

This annual event is co-ordinated by AmericaView, a non-profit organisation, whose aim to advance the widespread use of remote sensing data and technology through education and outreach, workforce development, applied research, and technology transfer to the public and private sectors.

Earth Observation Day is a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) event celebrating the Landsat mission and its forty-five year archive of imagery. Using satellite imagery provides valuable experience for children in maths and sciences, together with introducing subjects such as land cover, food production, hydrology, habitats, local climate and spatial thinking. The AmericaView website contains a wealth of EO materials available for teachers to use, from fun puzzles and games through to a variety of remote sensing tutorials. Even more impressive is that the event links schools to local scientists in remote sensing and geospatial technologies. These scientists provide support to teachers including giving talks, helping design lessons or being available to answer student’s questions.

This is a fantastic event by AmericaView, supporting by wonderful resources and remote sensing specialists. We first wrote about this three years ago, and thought the UK would benefit from something similar. We still do. The UK Space Agency recently had an opportunity for organisations interested in providing education and outreach activities to support EO, satellite launch programme or the James Webb Space Telescope. It will be interesting to see what the successful candidates come up with.

At Pixalytics we’re passionate about educating and inspiring the next generation of EO scientists. For example, we regularly support the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society’s Wavelength conference for students and early career scientists; and sponsored the Best Early-Career Researcher prize at this year’s GISRUK Conference. We’re also involved with two exciting events at Plymouth’s Marine Biological Association, a Young Marine Biologists (YMB) Summit for 12-18 year olds at the end of this month and their 2018 Postgraduate conference.

Why is this important?
The space industry, and the EO sector, is continuing to grow. According to Euroconsult’s ‘Satellites to Be Built & Launched by 2026 – I know this is another of the expensive reports we highlighted recently – there will be around 3,000 satellites with a mass above 50 kg launched in the next decade – of which around half are anticipated as being used for EO or communication purposes. This almost doubles the number of satellites launched in the last ten years and doesn’t include the increasing number of nano and cubesats going up.

Alongside the number of satellites, technological developments mean that the amount of EO data available is increasing almost exponentially. For example, earlier this month World View successfully completed multi-day flight of its Stratollite™ service, which uses high-altitude balloons coupled with the ability to steer within stratospheric winds. They can carry a variety of sensors, a mega-pixel camera was on the recent flight, offering an alternative vehicle for collecting EO data.

Therefore, we need a future EO workforce who are excited, and inspired, by the possibilities and who will take this data and do fantastic things with it.

To find that workforce we need to shout about our exciting industry and make sure everyone knows about the career opportunities available.

Can You See The Great Wall of China From Space?

Area north of Beijing, China, showing the Great Wall of China running through the centre. Image acquired by Sentinel-2 on 27th June 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Dating back over two thousand three hundred years, the Great Wall of China winds its way from east to west across the northern part of the country. The current remains were built during Ming Dynasty and have a length of 8 851.8 km according to 2009 work by the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage and National Bureau of Surveying and Mapping Agency. However, if you take into account the different parts of the wall built by other dynasties, its length is almost twenty two thousand kilometres.

The average height of the wall is between six and seven metres, and its width is between four to five metres. This width would allow five horses, or ten men, to walk side by side. The sheer size of the structure has led people to believe that it could be seen from space. This was first described by William Stukeley in 1754, when he wrote in reference to Hadrian’s Wall that ‘This mighty wall of four score miles in length is only exceeded by the Chinese Wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the Moon.’

Despite Stukeley’s personal opinion not having any scientific basis, it has been repeated many times since. By the time humans began to go into space, it was considered a fact. Unfortunately, astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin, Chris Hatfield and even China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, have all confirmed that the Great Wall is not visible from space by the naked eye. Even Pixalytics has got a little involved in this debate. Two years ago we wrote a blog saying that we couldn’t see the wall on Landsat imagery as the spatial resolution was not small enough to be able to distinguish it from its surroundings.

Anyone who is familiar with the QI television series on the BBC will know that they occasionally ask the same question in different shows and give different answers when new information comes to light. This time it’s our turn!

Last week Sam was a speaker at the TEDx One Step Beyond event at the National Space Centre in Leicester – you’ll hear more of that in a week or two. However, in exploring some imagery for the event we looked for the Great Wall of China within Sentinel-2 imagery. And guess what? We found it! In the image at the top, the Great Wall can be seen cutting down the centre from the top left.

Screenshot of SNAP showing area north of Beijing, China. Data acquired by Sentinel-2 on 27th June 2017. Data courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

It was difficult to spot. The first challenge was getting a cloud free image of northern China, and we only found one covering our area of interest north of Beijing! Despite Sentinel-2 having 10 m spatial resolution for its visible wavelengths, as noted above, the wall is generally narrower. This means it is difficult to see the actual wall itself, but it is possible to see its path on the image. This ability to see very small things from space by their influence on their surroundings is similar to how we are able to spot microscopic phytoplankton blooms. The image on the right is a screenshot from Sentinel Application Platform tool (SNAP) which shows the original Sentinel-2 image of China on the top left and the zoomed section identifying the wall.

So whilst the Great Wall of China might not be visible from space with the naked eye, it is visible from our artificial eyes in the skies, like Sentinel-2.

Evolution of the Earth Observation Market

Artist's rendition of a satellite - 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

The changing Earth Observation (EO) market has been a topic of office conversation this week at Pixalytics. We’re currently in the final stage of developing our own product portal, and it was interesting to see that some of our thoughts were echoed by reports from last week’s World Satellite Business Week event in Paris.

Unsurprisingly, speakers at the event agreed that the EO sector has huge growth potential. This is something we regularly see highlighted in various emails and press releases. For example, in the last few weeks we’ve had:

At a few thousand dollars for access to each report, we’ve said before that one of the products we should develop is an annual report on the EO market!

As we’ve been working towards our portal, one of issues we’ve identified is how difficult some portals are to navigate, particularly if you are not an EO expert. This was also recognised at the Paris event, with an acknowledgement that EO companies need to understand what customers want and then provide a user friendly experience to deliver those needs.

As reported by Tereza Pultarova in Space News, there was also discussion on the need to move away from simply selling data, and instead provide answers to the practical questions about the planet that businesses and consumers have. It is only through this transformation that new sectors and markets for EO will open which will be the key for the aforementioned future growth. The Paris event also highlighted some of the key trends that will be the backbone of this transformation:

  • Providing as close as possible to near real time data.
  • Increased data analytics, particularly through machine learning and artificial intelligence platforms to analyse data and highlight anomalies and changes faster.
  • Bringing satellite data together with social media information to rapidly enable context to be added to images.
  • Vertical integration within the industry within satellite firms acquiring with data processing and analytics companies; for example, Digital Globe acquired The Radiant Group earlier this year.
  • Processing data onboard satellites, so users download the information they want, rather than reams of data.

There was a really interesting analogy with the navigation industry given by Wade Larson, president and CEO of Urthecast. He said “Navigation became kind of embedded infrastructure in a much larger industry called location-based services. We think that this is happening with geoanalytics.”

This is the direction of travel for the industry, and some players are moving faster than others. Last week Airbus confirmed their four satellite very high-resolution-imaging constellation, Pléiades Neo, is on schedule for launch in 2020. This will have 30 cm spatial resolution and will utilise the Space Data Highway, also known as the European Data Relay System (EDRS), to stream the images into an online platform. The ERDS uses lasers to transfer up to 40 terabytes a day at a speed of up to 1.8 Gbits per second, meaning users will have access to data in near real time.

This evolution of the EO market needs to be recognised by every company in the industry from the Airbus down to the small company’s trying to launch their own product portal. If you don’t move with the changing market, you won’t get any of the market.