The earth observation industry is rapidly transforming into geoinformation industry. While new and disruptive technologies like nano-satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles and video from space as a format are further enabling the industry in terms of technology, the market is moving up the value chain as it gets mature and becomes more user-driven. We asked some of the top players in this segment about the changing dynamics of this industry. Revealing the latest trends and insights about the EO industry, the experts also highlighted how they are bracing themselves for this changing scenario. Here’s what they have to say.
|Watch Exclusive Video Interviews|
|Dr V.K. Dadhwal, Director, National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), India|
|Maranesi Marcello, CEO, e-GEOS, Italy|
|Dr Kumar Navalur, Director, Next-Gen Products, DigitalGlobe, USA|
|John S. Ahlrichs, VP, International Sales, BlackBridge, Germany|
|Nathalie Pisot, Head of Strategy and Analysis, Geo-Intelligence, Airbus Defence & Space, France|
DATA TO ANALYTICS
What does the future hold?
The number of sensors providing data has increased exponentially. So, for the EO industry to survive, companies have to move up the value chain. They have to go from data to information. We call it knowledge, people call it information modelling. The definition of information in my opinion is to take not only one data source but multiple data sources and create something that a user or an expert can use to make a decision. I believe the industry is already there. All the companies will be forced to move up the value chain because each step of data information will get commoditised, so that the more value one provides, the more valuable one becomes to the end-user.
The earth observation business started with raw data or images — digital and photographic. Once you have collected so much data and in such high frequency, that alone does not solve the problems. Since people are paying, they are entitled to a variety of information — on water, crop estimates, forest etc. What is happening now is that with so many satellites covering large areas, all information come with their own idiosyncrasies — applicability and non-applicability error. The important thing is to conver t this into actionable information. More importantly, one needs to do a holistic and comprehen – sive analysis of that data, asking different sets of questions. The question is: who will do it? T he user is not an exper t in analytics, so he needs somebody to do the job for him. T he word analytics is used very loosely. It can mean so many different things in different applications.
One of the challenges is to understand how we will work with the end-users, customers and partners to develop new applications and bring them to a new maturity level, which is not the case yet. Another point is how to make all this [information] accessible to the end-user, both from technical and economic point of view. The solution has to be cost-effective. We are developing data management services like cloud services, hosting, virtual tasking etc. because we think this is a key enabler to develop the user of geospatial data.
This change from data to analytics is definitely progressive. About 20 years ago, we were talking about remote sensing and that was our business. Then it became earth observation. Then the concept got broader and became geoinformation. Now, we are talking about geomatics because the data and information layers, which are derived from satellites, have to be compiled for application solutions. This means they have to be embeded into a software procedure that ultimately contributes to the operational workflow of an end-user. EO is valuable only in the sense that it is capable of contributing to the process of decision making the end-user is looking for. We are just contributing to a solution; we are not the solution.
as the way forward
There are two things one can do with satellites — mapping and monitoring. Nano-satellites are not a good fit for mapping; the primary reason being their accuracy. When we talk about monitoring, a satellite is required to take a picture multiple times a day and nano-satellites are perfect for that. Further, traditional satellites take around 4 to 5 years to be designed. The lifespan of a typical satellite is around 10 years, which means that one has 10-15 years time to change any technology. Nano-satellites are designed for 3-5 years which gives them the flexibility to adapt to new technologies. Despite competition, nano-satellites will become complementary to the existing EO business.
Nano-satellites bring some advantages as many of them can be launched together because they cost less. So in an industry where private companies are now building satellites, the cost factor will be a big advantage. But one has to worry about their performance over time. What companies need to figure out is how a group of nano-satellites as a whole are able to deliver at larger sites because they are simultaneously present over a more scattered part of the globe. Nano-satellites are here, and one must be prepared to make best use of this opportunity.
The advent of nano-satellites will bring in huge zeal in the EO market. We are monitoring this quite closely both from technical and commercial point of view. The question is how long will it take for this technology to reach maturity. The resolution and accuracy they offer at present are not answering the needs of the main customer base. But they will evolve for sure. Seeing these new entrants as potential competition for the future is a sign that the EO market is maturing. This is quite positive as this will help to build, develop and offer a new segment in the market that is impor tant for our customer base.
Having a technology which is delivering high results at lower cost and faster time is going to dramatically change our business. Low cost will enable launch of many of these satellites in a constellation model. Therefore, we will have the capability of doing things at various times of the day. Nano-satellites may not have the same performance capability as high-performing traditional satellites, but they will surely open up the markets, applications, and new arena of businesses for the industry.
Nano-satellite is an interesting concept. But it won’t significantly affect the EO industry. There will be some downward pressure but they are going to find their niche in the market. Nano-satellites will work out for customers who do not have rigorous quality requirements. [Otherwise] they will have to pass the rigorous scientific tests to be really absorbed in the technical remote sensing market. They will primarily take the same business model as that of traditional satellites and set-up their distribution market.
UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLES
as a disruptive media
UAVs are already there in the market; especially, in the defence application sector for a while. For us, it is a complementary technology to the space asset that we have, but with a disruptive approach. So we see the emergence of UAVs in the commercial market in the same way. UAVs are great but they will never be able to acquire data at any point of the day as space assets can do. We are already integrating UAV data into our processing system because we have to combine different types of data as soon as it is relevant for our customers. Also, Airbus Defence and Space has acquired extensive portfolio of UAVs so this puts us on a strong track to keep close to this domain.
UAVs will be another complementary injection to the overall geospatial information business. We are used to satellites, aerial and in-situ measurements, so there is some space between the aerial and ground, which is not yet covered. UAVs are covering this, enabling the sensing of ground or infrastructures from very close to the target point. I am talking about points such as power lines, rooftops, volcanoes, and all these types of new measurements that are being made available by UAVs. Of course, the problem here is the authorisation for these UAVs. Legislations are being changed at international levels in Europe and US.
UAVs will not be a disruptive technology; they will be interesting; they will be different. UAV models that have come up in the last two-three years and the ones that are coming up are all very exciting. The field has not grown yet, but in the coming years people will find ways to take advantage of them, [and come with ideas] not thought before. And in the coming years this market will definitely grow and UAVs will fulfill needs that are not being fulfilled today.
VIDEO AS A FORMAT
for EO data
Video is a very important approach to capture quick phenomenon but one needs to understand the capabilities of these imaging systems — how long you can capture a video and how will you position to look at that place where these changes are happening. As far as the analysis is concerned, videos are used on highways etc, so I am not that much concerned about processing of that data. The industry will find partners or appropriate companies or develop the technology if videos become a very important source of information. How many cameras you need, how can you focus and what is the observation window for the video? These are the aspects one needs to consider in the overall design of the concept.
Video is a brand new technology from space but we have to see how it develops, and how long it will take to mature. The question is not whether this will happen; because it surely will. [But as yet] there is no clarity on its application and the users who will benefit from the video technology. Also, the tools are not yet there. All of that will take a while to develop. We are monitoring this closely, and looking at how we can actively incorporate that in our portfolio. Airbus has a geostationary satellite project which is designed to create videos. It can capture video in real-time. This is what the future beholds.
Video is again an innovation in the EO business; from both micro- or nano-satellites or from space station. We have not yet fully evaluated this new product… it has to be understood better in terms of the interested market segments. We have to escape from the belief that satellites or space stations can look everywhere at one time of the day. We need to be realistic and know that these services are feasible but only for a limited period of time… for something like 60 seconds, 90 seconds or so. Not more than that. We will still have to learn how to make the best use out of that.
People are still collecting videos from polar satellites, so they have a limited amount of imaging time and it is still being limited to the time of day when they can collect it. Videos will come up with interesting observations; it will have interesting entrepreneurs; it will continue to encourage people to find new applications. It is just expanding the EO market, which I think is critical for its growth. If one is interested in continued coverage of an area then they have to rely on a geostationary satellite which opens several interesting possibilities. The videos that are available today are to my knowledge all collected by a polar satellite.
This article is published under the title – Earth Observation: The Eye from the Sky in April 2014 edition of Geospatial World Magazine