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.

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.

UK Government View On ESA and Space Industry

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

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

This week we got a glimpse of the UK Government’s view on the space industry, with the publication of Satellites and Space: Government Response to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee’s Third Report of Session 2016/17. The original report was published in June and contained a series of recommendations, to which the Government responded.

The timing is interesting for two reasons:

  • Firstly, it comes just before the European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Council taking place on Thursday and Friday this week in Lucerne. We highlighted the importance of this meeting in a recent blog.
  • Secondly, it has taken the Government five months to respond, something the Committee themselves were disappointed with.

The Government’s response has a number of insights into the future for the UK space industry. The full report can be seen here, but we wanted to pick out three things that caught our eye:

ESA
For us, and the ESA Ministerial, the most interesting comment was that the Government reaffirmed that the UK will remain a member of ESA after Brexit. It also noted that “The UK’s investment in the European Space Agency is an important part of our overall investment in space, from which we obtain excellent value.” Whilst the level of financial commitment to ESA won’t become clear until the Ministerial, the mood music seems positive.

Earth Observation
The role of the Space for Smarter Government Programme (SSGP) was highlighted, particularly in relation to helping the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs use satellite data more. As part of SSGP we ran a successful Flood Mapping project during 2015/16. SSGP is running again this year, but given the importance placed on the programme on embedding space activities within Government it was disappointing not to see a further commitment beyond March 2017.

A business plan for a Government Earth Observation Service is currently being written, which is aimed at increasing the uptake of EO data within Government. We’ve not seen too much about this service yet, and will be very interested in the business plan.

Responding a question on harnessing the public interest in Tim Peake’s time in space, it was nice to see the work of the EO Detective highlighted. This is a fantastic project that raises awareness of the space industry in schools, and uses space/satellite imagery to help children explore topics such as climate change.

Small Satellites
“The Government intends to establish the UK as the European hub for low cost launch of small satellites.” It’s an interesting ambition; although it’s not completely clear what they mean by the term small satellites. As we described last week definitions are important.

On top of the three points above there were some words on funding for space related research; however these amounted to no more than an acknowledgement that various Government bodies will work together. There was also reference to the development of a new Space Growth Strategy, something we’ll talk more about in two weeks.

The Government’s response to this report was an interesting read, and whilst there are still a lot of unanswered questions it does hint at cautious optimism that they will support the space industry.

We were all on tenterhooks this week waiting the big announcements from the ESA Ministerial, and here are some of the headline outcomes:

  • Overall, ESA’s 22 member states plus Slovenia and Canada allocated €10.3 billion for space activities and programmes over the next five years. This includes an EO programme valued at €1.37 bn up until 2025.

Within this overall envelope, the UK has allocated €1.4 bn funding over five years, which equates to 13.5% of total. This includes:

  • €670.5 m for satellite technology including telecommunications, navigation and EO.
  • €376.4 m for science and space research
  • €82,4 m for the ExoMars programme.
  • €71 m for the International Space Station Programme
  • €22 m for innovate space weather missions

Our eye was, of course, drawn to the investment in EO and there is a little more detail, with the €670.5 m is:€60 m for the development of the commercial use of space data €228.8 m for environmental science applications and climate services through ESA’s EO programme, including:

  • Incubed – a new programme to help industry develop the Earth observation satellite technology for commercial markets
  • the Biomass mission to measure the carbon stored in the world’s forests
  • the Aeolus mission, measuring wind speed in three dimensions from space

Finally, it is worth noting Katherine Courtney, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, who commented, “This significant investment shows how the UK continues to build on the capability of the UK space sector and demonstrates our continuing strong commitment to our membership in the European Space Agency.”

Stellar Space Careers

ESA astronaut Tim Peake, tests his NASA spacesuit, at NASA's Johnson Space Center, USA. Image courtesy of NASA.

ESA astronaut Tim Peake, tests his NASA spacesuit, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, USA.
Image courtesy of NASA.

The UK space industry will get a publicity boost in the next month, as astronaut British Tim Peake goes into space on a five-month mission at the International Space Station (ISS). Being an astronaut is something many children dream about, although as less than six hundred people have ever gone into space it is a challenge to achieve. Working in the space industry on the other hand is something within the reach of everyone.

The space industry, often referred to as the space economy, includes space related services ranging from the manufacturing of spacecraft, satellites, ground stations and launch vehicles; through space-enabled applications such as broadcasting, navigation equipment and satellite phones; to user value-added applications such as Earth Observation (EO), meteorological services and broadband. The industry is worth £11.8 Bn to the UK economy and it’s growing at rate of just under nine percent per annum. It directly supports around 37,000 jobs, and indirectly another 100,000.

The shining star of the industry – irrespective of how much we promote EO scientists – will always be the astronauts. Tim will be the second British astronaut into space; our first, Helen Sharman, went up 1991. He was selected as a European Space Agency astronaut in 2009 and was chosen for his ISS mission in 2013. The next step is a launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakstan, in December.

Although we’ve said becoming an astronaut was difficult, it is not impossible. This week people were encouraged to apply to NASA to become an astronaut. Before you all rush off to send in your application, there are a few requirements:

  • You have to be a US citizen.
  • They are looking for pilots, engineers, scientists and medical doctors.
  • You’ll have to pass a long-duration spaceflight physical test.

If you want to become an astronaut, or indeed work in the space economy, education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects is crucial. Last week, at the Von Braun Symposium in America, they called for more STEM education and internships to encourage the next generation of the space workforce.

The European Space Education Resource Office in the UK (ERESO-UK) aims to promote the use of space to enhance and support STEM teaching, and they have set up a number of projects surrounding Tim’s mission and they are encouraging school participation. These include the EO Detective Competition to win a photograph from space during Tim’s mission, the Space to Earth challenge encouraging students to run, swim, cycle, climb, dance or exercise the 400 km distance from the Earth to the ISS and there are grants for innovative projects linked to Tim’s mission. The full details of all the projects can be found here.

The space economy is a wide and varied sector, it offers opportunities for anyone who wants to get involved. If you, or someone you know, is considering their first, or a change of, career, then go and whisper space in their ear. You never know, one of them may become an astronaut in the future!

Earth Observation goes Back to the Future

Typhoon Atsani over the Pacific Ocean on 25 August 2015. Image from Himawari-8. Copyright 2015 EUMETSAT.

Typhoon Atsani over the Pacific Ocean on 25 August 2015. Image from Himawari-8. Copyright 2015 EUMETSAT.

Today is Back to the Future Day! Or more precisely, October 21st 2015 is the date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel back to in the second of the Back to the Future (BTTF) films. We’ve seen a few recent articles comparing the imagined 2015 with the actual year, and we decided this week’s blog will examine how Earth observation technology compares to the film’s predictions.

You might be reading this thinking you don’t remember any Earth observation data in the BTTF film? Well that is not strictly true! Whilst there might not have been any reference to pure satellite remote sensing such as Landsat, precision weather forecasting was present.

After arriving in 2015 in the film, Marty doesn’t want to get out of the DeLorean as it is pouring with rain. Doc looks at his watch and tells Marty to wait for five seconds, at which point the rain stops and the sun comes out. Now admittedly, getting such precision timing from a watch is stretching reality a bit, but we’re not that far away. In terms of the device, an Apple Watch with a weather forecasting app is the most obvious equivalent. Although, all smartphones have weather apps and are not that dissimilar; interestingly, the development of mobile technology was something completely missed by BTTF.

On the accuracy of the predictions, regular readers of this blog will know we are Formula One fans and we even sponsored a car last year. On the commentary of those races you will hear the teams using their rain radar maps to give their drivers weather updates such as ‘rain is predicted in ten minutes, it will last five minutes and expected to be heavy’. Accurate predictions are getting closer, although it may be some time until we know the second the rain will stop.

The other major link to Earth observation within the film is the examples of drone technology. The first example is the use of ‘hovercams’ to provide video of breaking news events; whilst again this is something not widely used by news agencies, the concept of using drones to take videos or collect data is something that is very much used within the remote sensing community. There is a second example with the shot of a drone walking a dog, and it looks very similar to drones currently being used. Not quite sure that a drone could walk a dog yet though, despite the videos on the internet!

However, the potential for drones to become more commonplace was recognised this week by the US Transport Secretary who called for a national register and drones and owners. The number of drones flown by the general population is expected to grow rapidly. It’s likely that some form of development of the legal or regulatory framework will occur to ensure these are operated in a manner that does not undermine safety and privacy.

Earth observation and remote sensing technology was part of the 1989 BTTF film. If we look forward 26 years from today to 2041, anyone want to predict what will be the rising technology in remote sensing? Tweet us your ideas!

Remote Sensing and Agriculture in Italy

Poster from the Game Changing Technologies in Agriculture Event in Milan on 1st October 2015

Poster from the Game Changing Technologies in Agriculture Event in Milan on 1st October 2015

Last week I was in Italy talking all things remote sensing and agriculture. At the start of the week I was in Rome with the European Space Agency (ESA) discussing the Sentinel-2 performance, before catching the train north to Milan on the Wednesday evening for a series of UK Trade and Industry events focused on technology in the agricultural industry (AgriTech).

Thursday’s event was titled ‘Game Changing Technologies in Agriculture’, and was held in what looked like a large greenhouse in the grounds of Villa Necchi. We began the day with a welcome from the UK’s Ambassador to Italy, which was followed by talks from those working most directly in the agriculture industry. It was fascinating to hear some of the facts and see how much of a technological revolution has been occurring within this field. This is being driven by both the world population’s increased need for food – a 60% increase in demand by 2020 – and the corresponding need for businesses to increase their productivity. An overriding theme was the need to be more robust to, or better understand, the environment, including protection food production from both the weather and pests to reduce wastage.

After coffee we moved onto the provision of technological solutions, and there were a couple talks about how both drone and satellite remote sensing could benefit agriculture. My favourite other talks included the fitting of accelerometer collars on cows to collect data about their move movements more effectively, and the use of robot mechanical hands to perform repetitive tasks.

The afternoon expanded into synthetic biology, nanotechnology and technologies to reduce energy requirements or produce it more sustainably. Refrigeration is an important technology for the developing world, allowing a reduction in the current 40% post-harvest food wastage, but needs to be undertaken efficiently; the engines powering the refrigeration units on lorries produce much more pollution than the lorry engines themselves. This was followed by an interactive session where UK innovation centres had ‘stands’ that were used as discussions points on issues such as crops, horticulture, livestock, aquaculture, satellite technologies and big data. The day concluded with talks by Williams Advanced Engineering (associated with the Williams Formula One team) and IBM on how technologies are crossing from one sector to another.

On Friday, whilst it rained heavily in Milan, I spent the morning at the first Sainsbury’s Italian supplier conference. It was interesting to see how a large company is defining, and following, its strategies that include a focus on simplification; both for the supply chain and what the customer experiences. In the afternoon we had an escorted visit around the Milan Expo 2015. This is a six month exhibition which began in May and runs to the end of October and has the theme of Feeding the planet, energy for life’; it has exhibititors from over 140 countries and an exhibition area of 1.1 million square metres; although I didn’t explore all it! The UK exhibit was a beehive structure and wildflower meadow that was connected back to a real beehive in UK.

It was an interesting week and gave me lots of food for thought on how we can further develop the AgriTech services Pixalytics offers.