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Sensing the “Remote” markets

Tamal Pal
GIS Development

Continued technological innovation in tools is set to make remote sensing the major commercial success in space

The thrill one gets on viewing an aerial photograph often compels one to ponder if the entire earth could be viewed aerially. This thought has become the focal point in the development of Remote Sensing science. In the early ’70s, when Landsat satellites with a resolution of 80 metres in 4 spectral bands were launched, the ability to view the entire earth in 80 metre resolution, was revolutionary. But soon this marriage of convenience was to end as expectations of many were washed off due to poor resolution and the 80 metre resolution, though sounding great, proved to be merely a revolutionary thought. Moreover, most of these satellites were experimental with emphasis placed on developing technology rather than using the data. But things were not to remain the same as the next generation of remote sensor Thematic Mapper (TM) aboard Landsats 4 and 5 followed by SPOT 1, 2 and 3’s High Resolution Vertical (HRV) sensors proved remote sensing a boon to the scientific community. With resolutions of 30 metres and 20 metres respectively, the data provided by these sensors were quite useful for a variety of applications. India was to soon become a major contributor to the science and with its latest IRS series of satellites providing images with a resolution of 5.8 metres. It has become a pioneer. However, with the recent launch of the IKONOS satellite having a resolution of one metre, satellite history will never be the same again. Continued technological innovation in tools associated with the use of remote sensing data is poised to make space remote sensing the next major commercial success in space, following telecommunication satellites.

The magic word in today’s world is ‘globalisation’. Globalisation of the market place is a current trend. Nations are moving from independent states dependent on trade within a small group of nations to interdependent states buying and selling in a global trading system. Space-based remote sensing has become a part of this globalisation trend. Nations that cannot afford their own high resolution satellites and related support infrastructures no longer feel left behind in the race as they can very easily enter into licensing agreements with giants or even build their own groundstations and pay fees to satellite owners for downlinking data, thereby allowing the smaller nations to be a part of the remote sensing market without extensive or expensive investments. The market for space-based remote sensing data currently runs to about $140 million. By 2004 this may soar to almost $700 million. A study of the factors responsible for such a tremendous growth yields several gains some of which are discussed below.

Technological breakthroughs in remote sensing data collection tools.
Several technology trends are accelerating remote sensing market growth. These include further miniaturisation of microprocessors in satellite systems and new materials for building more powerful solar arrays. One very important factor is the improvement in the resolution of the satellites. Satellites with higher resolution and greater spectral coverage increase the number of applications for the potential users. Also included in the list is a current development in the GIS field. One major boost received to the remote sensing industry is the availability of the Internet. The wide use of dissemination of data through the Internet has made it easy for several users to access data at the same time. With the Internet, data transfer and communication are no longer time consuming.

Demand and willingness to pay for information derived from remote sensing data.
Demand emanates largely from technological advances and the quality of services provided to the customer. The government was and is likely to remain the dominant customer for these services and products. Besides the government, other customers generally include public and private managers of natural resources; environmental regulators; investors and managers of infrastructural projects; media; defence departments and mapping agencies; and last but not least researchers in various fields. The government, apart from being a customer, has also been a sole data provider. However, the increase in demand for data has multiplied the efforts to develop strictly private commercial ventures for distribution of data. A pivotal role in deciding the size of demand is the willingness to pay for the information provided and this in turn depends on many factors. These include the value of the resources or activities about which the data provide information; substitute or “next best” sources of information other than space-derived data; the costs of tools needed to use the data; the sizes of private and public sector budgets for information products and so on.

Policies and legislative support to the industry.
For a long time, national mapping agencies were the sole data collectors. This was probably due to the fact that only the national mapping agencies could afford the equipment and infrastructure required to map on a national scale. However, with technology becoming more advanced and accessible, private sector capabilities emerged and now many of the national mapping agencies have shifted from being data gatherers to data managers. Perhaps the new century will make the national agencies a mere source of digital topographic information. Public policies and government support play a major role in determining the remote sensing industry’s future financial prosperity (for example, space launch regulation and environmental regulation that drive part of the demand for data etc.). The best of the policies cannot ensure industrial profitability; however, bad policies are certainly negative to the industry. Till now the response has been positive from all perspectives and this is probably one of the reasons for the boom in the industry. For ensuring the proper growth and development of this industry, it is imperative to reduce the gap among scientists, engineers, and business in commercial remote sensing.

However, certain trends, which are presently being followed, need to be reframed. One such policy requiring amendment is the practice of providing subsidised data from government remote sensing systems to science researchers. The prevailing policies requiring that government data be supplied at subsidised costs has become redundant in the case of remote sensing as new technologies and markets have given rise to commercial remote sensing positions in the industry and have become suppliers of data to the government, a reversal of the traditional roles. As a result, providing subsidised data adds on the problems of the overburdened government trying to reduce its expenditure. Another problem is that when data is “free” (or supplied at the cost of reproduction), the value of the data is not realised.

The Future
Considering the present trend, the future will see an increased product supply, which will come from more satellites in orbit and this, in turn, will reduce costs through competition. The quality of the products will improve as a result of broader spectral coverage that will empower value-added providers. The result of all this is that the market will open up for new customers. Once users see the technological advances in remote sensing and see that these technologies actually deliver on that product, price will become less of an issue. In addition, competition invariably will continue to drive the cost down. The future will see a rise in the activities of value-added resellers in remote sensing, as they would be capable of providing a plethora of new products and services. This, in turn, will increase the data’s usefulness to new customers who would discover new applications for them. This increase will be the harbinger of a trend towards even greater growth in subsequent years as technology matures and the customer base broadens. There will also be a reduction in the turnaround time between request and delivery, which probably will continue to improve. A key to market success will be product delivery. With orbital platforms and ground operations performing perfectly, a satellite system still must be able to deliver a product within a few hours of a customer’s request. Failure to achieve that standard on a regular basis will direct more customers to other grazing grounds resulting in greater competition and thereby increasing the efficiency of the services provided. The future will also see many commercial geospatial information providers working hand in hand with government agencies for data collection, enhancement and dissemination. This would help in the government goal of cutting costs by tapping the commercial sector for vital data.