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 Stratolliteâ„¢ 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.

Queen’s Speech Targets Space

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

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

Last week was the State Opening of Parliament in the UK following the General Election, this included the Queen’s Speech which set out the legislation the Government intends introduce in the coming Parliament. As expected, Brexit dominated the headlines and so you may have missed the announcement of the Space Industry Bill.

The space sector has been a growth target for the Government since 2010, when it set an ambitious target of delivering 10% of the global space economy. The last UK Space Agency report covered 2014/15 and indicated the industry was worth £13.7bn – equivalent to 6.5% of the global space economy.

Our space industry is inextricably linked to Europe through the European Space Agency (ESA). Whilst, as we have described before, Brexit won’t affect our role in ESA, other projects such as Copernicus and Galileo are EU led projects and the UK’s future involvement isn’t clear. This Bill is part of the Government’s response, and its aim is to make the UK the most attractive place in Europe for commercial space activities.

We’ve previously written about the current UK licencing and regulatory arrangements for anyone who wants to launch an object into space, as detailed in the Outer Space Act 1986. This Bill will change that framework and has the following key elements:

  • New powers to license a wide range of spaceflight activities, including vertically-launched rockets, spaceplanes, satellite operations, spaceports and other technologies.
  • Comprehensive and proportionate regulatory framework to manage risk.
  • Measures to regulate unauthorised access and interference with spacecraft, spaceports and associated infrastructure.
  • Measures to promote public safety by providing a regulatory framework to cover operational insurance, indemnity and liability.

The Bill itself is based on the draft Spaceflight Bill published in February, together with the Government responses to the twelve recommendations of the Science and Technology Committee Report on the Draft Spaceflight Bill which was issued on the 22nd June.

There are still a number of questions to be answered over the coming months.

  • Limited Liability: Currently, the standard requirement is to have insurance of at least €60 million. However, the draft Bill suggests that insurance requirements will be determined as part of the license application process. Clearly, the different types of spaceflight will have different risks and so having flexibility makes sense; however, until the industry understands this aspects it will be a concerning area of uncertainty.
  • Spaceports: Previously, the Government intended to select a location for a spaceport, but last year this changed to offering licences for spaceports. This means there could be multiple spaceports in the country, but it is questionable whether there is sufficient business to support multiple sites. Given the specialist knowledge and skills needed to launch spacecraft, it is likely that a preferred site will eventually emerge, with or without Government involvement.
  • Speed of Change: Back in 2012 the Government acknowledged that regulations for launching objects into space needed to be revised as they didn’t suit smaller satellites. Since that time satellites have got even smaller, constellation launches are increasing rapidly and costs are decreasing. The legislation and regulations will need to evolve as quickly as the technology, if the UK is to be the most attractive place to do business. Can we do this?

The UK Space Industry is in for a roller coaster over the coming years. Brexit will undoubtedly be challenging, and will throw up many threats; whereas the Space Industry Bill will offer opportunities. To be successful companies will need to tread a careful path.

Three Exciting Ways to Protect Forests With Remote Sensing

Forests cover one third of the Earth’s land mass and are home to more than 80% of the terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. However, 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed each year. The United Nations International Day of Forests took place recently, on 21st March, to raise awareness of this vital resource.

Three remote sensing applications to help protect forests caught our eye recently:

Two scans show the difference between infected, on the right, and uninfected, on the left, patches of forest. Image Courtesy of University of Leiceste

Identifying Diseased Trees
In the March issue of Remote Sensing, researchers from the University of Leicester, (Barnes et al, 2017), published a paper entitled ‘Individual Tree Crown Delineation from Airborne Laser Scanning for Diseased Larch Forest Stands’. It describes how the researchers were able to identify individual trees affected by larch tree disease, also known as phytophthora ramorum.

This fungus-like disease can cause extensive damage, including the death, and diseased trees can be identified by defoliation and dieback. Airborne LiDAR surveys were undertaken by the company Bluesky at an average altitude of 1500 m, with a scan frequency of 66 Hz that gave a sensor range precision within 8 mm and elevation accuracy around 3–10 cm.

Remote sensing has been used to monitor forests for many years, but using it to identify individual trees is uncommon. The researchers in this project were able to successfully identify larch canopies partially or wholly defoliated by the disease in greater than 70% of cases. Whilst further development of the methodology will be needed, it is hoped that this will offer forest owners a better way of identifying diseased trees and enable them to respond more effectively to such outbreaks.

Monitoring Trees From Space
An interesting counterpoint to work of Barnes et al (2017) was published by the journal Forestry last month. The paper ‘Estimating stand density, biomass and tree species from very high resolution stereo-imagery – towards an all-in-one sensor for forestry applications‘ written by Fassnacht et al (2017).

It describes work undertaken to compare the results of very high resolution optical satellite data with that of airborne LiDAR and hyperspectral data to provide support for forestry management. The team used WorldView-2 images, of a temperate mixed forest in Germany, with a 2m pixel size, alongside a LiDAR DTM with a 1 m pixel size. This data was then used to estimate tree species, forest stand density and biomass.

They found  good results for both forest stand density and biomass compared to other methods, and although the tree classification work did achieve over eighty percent, this was less than achieved by hyperspectral data over the same site; although differentiation of broadleaved and coniferous trees was almost perfect.

This work shows that whilst further work is needed, optical data has the potential to offer a number of benefits for forestry management.

Monitoring Illegal Logging
Through the International Partnership Programme the UK Space Agency is funding a consortium, led by Stevenson Astrosat Ltd, who will be using Earth Observation (EO) data to monitor, and reduce, illegal logging in Guatemala.

The issue has significant environmental and socioeconomic impacts to the country through deforestation and change of land use. The Guatemalan government have made significant efforts to combat the problem, however the area to be monitored is vast. This project will provide a centralised system using EO satellite data and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) technology accessed via mobile phones or tablets to enable Guatemala’s National Institute of Forestry (INAB) to better track land management and identify cases of illegal logging.

Overall
The protection of our forests is critical to the future of the planet, and it’s clear that satellite remote sensing can play a much greater role in that work.

Supporting Uganda’s Farmers

Map of Uganda showing vegetation productivity. Underlying data is the MODIS 2014 NPP Product, MOD17 – Zhoa et al. (2005).

Uganda is a landlocked country of just over 240,000 square kilometres. Agriculture is a key element of the country’s economy and was responsible for 23% of gross domestic product in 2011 and almost half the country’s exports the following year. According to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 80% of the population relies on farming for its livelihood.

It has an equatorial climate, with regional variations, although recent recurrent dry spells have impacted on crop and livestock productivity. Pixalytics is delighted to be part of a consortium led by the RHEA Group, working with the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment and local NGOs to develop a Drought and Flood Mitigation Service (DFMS) to give practical information to help local communities respond to the effects of climate change.

Using computer models populated with satellite, meteorological, water resources and ground based data an innovative Environment Early Warning Platform will be developed to provide Ugandan farmers, via local NGO organisations, with forecasts throughout the growing seasons to enable them to take actions to maximise their crop yield.

Pixalytics, along with fellow consortium member, Environment Systems, are responsible for the Earth Observation data in the project. We’ll be looking at variety of optical and radar data to provide information about flood and drought conditions alongside crops and their growing conditions.

The project should benefit local communities by:

  • Improving the ability to forecast and mitigate droughts and floods on a local actionable scale.
  • Allowing NGOs to target resources saving time, money and lives.
  • Allowing farmers to improve their lives and better protect their livestock and crops.

Alongside ourselves, and RHEA Group, our consortium includes Environment Systems, Databasix, AA International, AgriTechTalk International, HR Wallingford, UK Met Office, Mercy Corps, and Oxford Policy Management. We will also work with international partners, including the Uganda Government Ministries, Kakira Sugar Company, and the NGO Green Dreams/iCOW. The first of a number of visits to Uganda took place last week, where we had the opportunity to make lots of local contacts and meet some of those whom we hope to benefit from this work.

This work is part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme and ours is one of 21 projects chosen to provide solutions to local issues in counties across Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

This is a really exciting project to be involved with, and we’re looking forward to providing useful information to local farmers to allow them to take real and meaningful action to enhance the productivity, and protection, of their livestock and crops.

Perspectives from the 12th Appleton Space Conference

Sam presenting at the 2016 Appleton Space Conference. Image courtesy of Deimos UK.

Sam presenting at the 2016 Appleton Space Conference. Image courtesy of Deimos UK.

Last week I attended the 12th Appleton Space Conference, it was the first time I’d been to one of these conferences, and I was excited to be giving a talk. It was hosted by RAL Space at the Harwell Campus.

After the welcome, the day started with a talk from Ross James (Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency). He’s new to the space community, and so has enjoyed learning to understand it more fully. It was interesting to hear him reinforce the conclusion that the space industry’s value-added multiplier is two, but also that the industry needs to be more regionally and user focused.

Talks then followed by members of European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT, the UK’s ESA centre) and the Harwell Campus. I was surprised hear the comparison that the Harwell Campus site is roughly equivalent to the size of the City of London. Whilst Harwell doesn’t yet have any of the iconic tall buildings of the City, it does mean it has plenty of space to grow – with plans to increase the campus to 5 500 jobs by 2020; although it was acknowledged that an upgrade of the underpinning infrastructure would be needed to support this.

Sam presenting at the 2016 Appleton Space Conference. Image courtesy of Sara Huntingdon, Space for Smarter Government Programme.

Sam presenting at the 2016 Appleton Space Conference. Image courtesy of Sara Huntingdon, Space for Smarter Government Programme.

After the break we swapped to the topics of growth and innovation. The Autumn Statement had a strong focus on creating an environment for backing winners, with Innovation UK targeted on turning scientific excellence into economic input and scaling up high potential businesses. Two quotes from Tim Just (Innovate UK) that particularly resonated with me:

  • Research is the transformation of money into knowledge; and
  • Innovation transforms it back again.

There was also a debate on whether the space industry is reaching the threshold for a tipping point as outlined in Malcolm Gladwell’s criteria – i.e., where a slow moving trend reaches critical mass and causes a larger change such as the use of space applications and technologies becoming the everyday norm. The last two talks before lunch were on the development of new instruments – including the recently launched Sentinel-3 mission.

The first afternoon session was on understanding scientific advances. We started off by discussing exoplanets (a planet which orbits a star outside the solar system), followed by detecting signals using ground based radars and then understanding gravitational waves. My own talk on harnessing the increasing volumes of Earth Observation (EO) data came at the end of this session. I focused on discussing how there has been a massive change in the amount of available EO data with the need to bring the abilities of computers and humans together to best use this wealth of information.

The slides from my presentation can be found here. It was interesting to see some of the messages people took away from my talk on Twitter such as:

  • The availability of free satellite data is revolutionising remote sensing
  • We have to make the most out of the large quantity of data made available by Earth Observation

After lots of people coming to talk to me during coffee it was great to see Paul Jerram from e2V showing what EO sensors look like, ranging from much larger version of the snapshot imagers found in smart phones to time delay imagers that collect the signal over a period of time so we can have very high resolution imagery. For example, the planet Mars is being imaged at 30 cm resolution. Prof Martin Wooster (Kings College London) focused on biomass burning emissions. Research has shown that the Malaysian fires in 2015, linked to El Nino, contributed to 15% of the global carbon dioxide increases that year but also to thousands of deaths due to the air pollution they caused.

Our day of talks concluded with a keynote lecture by Tim Peake, giving a personal insight into his mission into Space onboard the International Space Station (ISS). As an afternoon speaker I had a front row seat, and so I’m easily spotted on Tim’s room selfie! It was interesting to hear that Tim found adjusting to gravity back on Earth more difficult than weightlessness in space. How much he enjoyed his time on the ISS was obvious when he said he’d be happy to go again as the journey into space was particularly exhilarating.

Whilst aboard the ISS Tim used his limited amount of spare time on Sundays to take photographs of the Earth. Anyone who followed Tim on Twitter will have seen some of these, but he has also now brought out a book of these pictures titled ‘Hello, is this planet Earth? My View from the International Space Station’. An interesting footnote, although not from the conference, is that the UK has just purchased the capsule Tim used to get to, and from, space and it will go on display in the Science Museum next year.

Overall, it was a fantastic day jam packed with interesting, exciting and inspiring discussions about space!

Flooding Forecasting & Mapping

Sentinel-1 data for York overlaid in red with Pixalytics flood mapping layer based on Giustarini approach for the December 2015 flooding event. Data courtesy of ESA.

Sentinel-1 data for York overlaid in red with Pixalytics flood mapping layer based on Giustarini approach for the December 2015 flooding event. Data courtesy of ESA.

Media headlines this week have shouted that the UK is in for a sizzling summer with temperature in the nineties, coupled with potential flooding in August due to the La Niña weather process.

The headlines were based on the UK Met Office’s three month outlook for contingency planners. Unfortunately, when we looked at the information ourselves it didn’t exactly say what the media headlines claimed! The hot temperatures were just one of a number of potential scenarios for the summer. As any meteorologist will tell you, forecasting a few days ahead is difficult, forecasting a three months ahead is highly complex!

Certainly, La Niña is likely to have an influence. As we’ve previously written, this year has been influenced by a significant El Niño where there are warmer ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific. La Niña is the opposite phase, with colder ocean temperatures in that region. For the UK this means there is a greater chance of summer storms, which would mean more rain and potential flooding. However, there are a lot of if’s!

At the moment our ears prick up with any mention of flooding, as Pixalytics has just completed a proof of concept project, in association with the Environment Agency, looking to improve operational flood water extent mapping information during flooding incidents.

The core of the project was to implement recent scientific research published by Matgen et al. (2011), Giustarini et al. (2013) and Greifeneder et al. (2014). So it was quite exciting to find out that Laura Guistarini was giving a presentation on flooding during the final day of last week’s ESA Living Planets Symposium in Prague – I wrote about the start of the Symposium in our previous blog.

Laura’s presentation, An Automatic SAR-Based Flood Mapping Algorithm Combining Hierarchical Tiling and Change Detection, was interesting as when we started to implement the research on Sentinel-1 data, we also came to the conclusion that the data needed to be split into tiles. It was great to hear Laura present, and I managed to pick her brains a little at the end of the session. At the top of the blog is a Sentinel-1 image of York, overlaid with a Pixalytics derived flood map in red for the December 2015 flooding based on the research published by Laura

The whole session on flooding, which took place on the last morning of the Symposium, was interesting. The presentations also included:

  • the use of CosmoSkyMed data for mapping floods in forested areas within Finland.
  • extending flood mapping to consider Sentinel-1 InSAR coherence and polarimetric information.
  • an intercomparison of the processing systems developed at DLR.
  • development of operational flood mapping in Norway.

It was useful to understand where others were making progress with Sentinel-1 data, and how different processing systems were operating. It was also interesting that several presenters showed findings, or made comments, related to the double bounce experienced when a radar signal is reflected off not just the ground, but another structure such as a building or tree. Again it is something we needed to consider as we were particularly looking at urban areas.

The case study of our flood mapping project was published last week on the Space for Smarter Government Programme website as they, via UK Space Agency, using the Small Business Research Initiative supported by Innovate UK, funded the project.

We are continuing with our research, with the aim of having our own flood mapping product later this year – although the news that August may have flooding means we might have to quicken our development pace!

Shrinking Satellites

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

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

Satellites, like Dairy Milk, Mars Bars and Snickers, are getting smaller these days. Factors contributing to this shrinkage include new technology, continued miniaturisation of computing components and increased launch costs – whereas smaller size equals less weight and less weight equals lower costs.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists database at the end of August 2015, the total launch weight of all satellites still in orbit is approximately two and half million kilograms! A sobering thought given that most of these are travelling in excess of seventeen thousand miles per hour! The Guinness Book of Records lists the heaviest commercial satellite as TerreStar-1 that had a launch mass of 6 903.8 kg in 2009; whereas the heaviest payload is the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Telescope that had a weight of 22 753 kg when launched in 1999. Although, it should be noted there are number of large military satellites in space whose launch weight cannot be verified. However, everyone can agree that these satellites are large and heavy!

Smaller satellites have been around since 2000, but it wasn’t until 2013 when 92 smaller satellites were launched in a single year that the numbers became significant. There are a number of categories of small satellites:

  • Minisatellites have a mass of between 100 kg and 500 kg.
  • Microsatellites have a mass between 10 kg and 100 kg.
  • Nanosatellites have a mass between 1 kg and 10 kg.
  • Picosatellites have a mass between 0.1 kg and 1 kg.
  • Femtosatellites have a mass between 10 g and 100 g.

Smaller satellites do have technical challenges. These include shorter overall life, limitations on propulsion and manoeuvring capabilities, less computing power and very low bandwidth communication systems. There have been a number of innovative solutions developed to respond these challenges, for example the UK company Oxford Space Systems have developed deployable structures, such as antennas and solar panels, based on the principles of origami using ‘shape memory’ materials. This has resulted in lighter, simple and cheaper deployable structures, for example, they have a parabolic antenna scalable up to twelve metres.

Technical issues are not the only challenges for small satellites, the regularity framework has not yet adapted to the changing market. As we’ve discussed previously, within the UK the Outer Space Act 1986 details the regulations for satellite launches. These are based around large satellites, and are not at all favourable to small satellites. The UK Space Agency recently issued a series of recommendations on how the regulatory approach might be tailored for smaller satellites.

Smaller satellites offer a more flexible, and cheaper, way of getting sensors and experiments into space. While this is great for smaller companies and educational institutes; commercial organisations are also taking advantage of this new trend. It will be interesting to see if the trend for smaller satellites continues to grow or, like mobile phones, the miniaturisation ceases and they get bigger again!

Collaborative Earth Observation

This image combines two Sentinel-1A radar scans from 3 and 15 January 2015 to show ice velocities on outlet glaciers of Greenland’s west coast. Courtesy of Copernicus data (2015)/ESA/Enveo

This image combines two Sentinel-1A radar scans from 3 and 15 January 2015 to show ice velocities on outlet glaciers of Greenland’s west coast. Courtesy of Copernicus data (2015)/ESA/Enveo

Establishing Earth observation systems are large and expensive projects with the combination of satellite development and launch alongside the ground based infrastructure, but the direct Earth observation community itself is fairly small. Working collaboratively and in partnerships can therefore help leverage initiatives, funding, research and publicity to demonstrate the value, and benefits, of our industry to the wider world.

Last week saw the announcement of three international collaborations for the UK, two at a national level and one at a local Pixalytics level! Firstly, the UK Space Agency announced 7 new collaborative projects between UK companies and international partners, funded through the International Partnerships Space Programme to develop satellite technology and applications in emerging economies.

The projects included e-learning solutions for schools in Tanzania, developing satellite air navigation, low cost telecommunications CubeSats, enhancing digital connectivity in Kenya and developing instruments for the next generation of meteorological and disaster management satellites. They were also two Earth Observation specific projects:

  • Enabling Kazakhstan’s Earth observation capability by developing and testing ground receiving stations ahead of the planned 2016 launch of the KazSTSAT small satellite mission, which will produce over 70 gigabytes of data daily.
  • Oceania Pacific Recovery and Protection in Disaster (RAPID) system which will aim to improve the use of satellite data in the aftermath of natural disasters, by getting critical decision influencing information to people in the field as quickly as possible.

The second collaboration was the UK signing the Ground Segment Cooperation agreement with ESA for the EU’s Copernicus programme. This sees the establishment of a data hub in Harwell to provide UK users with easier access to the free and publicly available data from the Copernicus Sentinel missions, and a wide range of complementary missions. The Sentinel missions will form the backbone of this data, with 14 planned satellite launches by 2025; eventually providing around 8 terabytes of data daily. Launched in 2014, Sentinel-1A is the first mission and carries a C-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) instrument providing all-weather, day-and-night imagery of the Earth’s surface; it is producing some stunning images including the one at the top of this blog. Next up will be Sentinel-2A this summer which will offer optical data across 13 spectral bands, with 4 bands at 10 m spatial resolution, 6 bands at 20 m and 3 bands at 60 m.

The final collaborative partnership is closer to home; as Pixalytics is delighted to announce that we have an international PhD student, through the European Union’s Erasmus Programme, coming to work with us over the summer.

Remote sensing and Earth observation are becoming increasingly collaborative, and is only likely to continue in the future. Everyone should encourage and support these developments, as working together will achieve much more than working alone.

The UK Space industry is healthy, but is it understood?

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

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

Last week the UK Space Agency released the Executive Summary of its biennial report into the Size and Health of the UK Space Industry. It gives a positive overall picture with the industry having a turnover of £11.3bn in 2012/13; it’s growing at an average annual rate of 7.3%, exports are expanding and we are on track to achieve the aim of having a £40bn UK space industry by 2030. Despite all the positive news, the report raised questions on how well understood the industry is.

The industry is generally split into two sectors, upstream and downstream. Where upstream refers to the part of the industry that build and launch satellites and sensors into space; whilst downstream encompasses the products and services that use the data those objects collect. However, according to the report there is a growing belief that this definition is no longer fit for purpose as it doesn’t reflect the whole industry. Instead the report has split the industry into three sectors: upstream (infrastructure and technology), downstream (direct space services) and the new sector, the wider space economy – which covers space-enabled value added applications.

Evolving definitions is something that happens as industries, technologies and knowledge matures, but we would questions whether providing this split within the downstream activity is helpful. Pixalytics is an Earth observation company; we develop products and services from space data, offer consultancy support and undertake image processing. According to the new definitions our products and services are considered downstream activities, whereas our consultancy and image processing are part of the wider space economy. It’s rarely, if ever, true, that using space data alone can be used to answer customer’s questions. Instead it’s about integrating that data with other information and knowledge, to create a product that adds value for the customer. Hence, a huge part of our work will always span the downstream and wider space economy sectors. So do these new changes create more definition or confusion?

The report is based, amongst other things, on an industrial survey. Invitations to participate in the survey were sent to 228 companies who were judged to be part of the wider space economy. Only 12 replied, that’s a response rate of just 5.26%! We need to understand why there is such a poor response rate, is it apathy, a lack of understanding that they use space services or do they not consider themselves defined by their data sources? If a company uses satellite data, overflights, in-situ measurements and scientific modelling to deliver their services, are they part of the wider space economy? We use desks and bookshelves in our office, but it doesn’t make us a furniture business.

Like many things, communication is the key. If we are evolving our definition of the industry we can’t do it alone. We need to engage with the companies within the industry, and crucially with those we are trying to bring in. Inclusive discussion, education and understanding at all levels are vital, if we want to develop a vibrant and participative wider space economy.