Eye in the sky is hope for the future

When the Chancellor announced a few weeks ago that some government departments might have to make budget savings of 25-40% many will wonder how this can be achieved. Many functions of government will need to be done differently but, for people like me, the challenging question is what does ‘different’ really mean and how can we turn this in to real, meaningful change?

Professor Ian Boyd in the clean room at Surrey Satellites Technology Limited

Professor Ian Boyd in the clean room at Surrey Satellites Technology Limited

This week I visited Surrey Satellites Technology Limited (SSTL) a medium-sized company run by a brilliant engineer and business-man, Sir Martin Sweeting. It is a success story of the leading edge of British Industry. Having emerged as a small company from the University of Surrey, it is now one of the world’s leading manufacturers of small satellites; with annual revenues exceeding £100M and total export sales in excess of £600M to 18 different countries. When I was there, I saw the latest satellite they are building for the UK.

SSTL have an imaginative business model. They are adapting the kind of mass-produced electronic innovations that we all have in our smart phones to deliver satellites at a small fraction of the historical costs. Until recently, only whole nations or massive telecoms companies were rich enough to be able to buy and launch satellites. Now, cities are beginning to buy their own satellites to help them do their business.

Satellites do three basic things for us; help us navigate around our world, communicate across the globe, and see what is going on across the surface of the Earth and in its atmosphere.  GPS-type systems and phone systems are such an integral part of our daily lives , we do not really know (or care) when we are using satellites. But the story is not quite the same for the benefits of Earth observation (EO) because of the complex nature of the data that satellites provide about the surface of the Earth and the atmosphere.

There are a remarkable range of applications of EO information and many of us probably are aware of very few of these. From providing information about the height of waves in the sea to measuring the amount of oil in oil tanks, seeing if planning consents have been complied with or understanding the extent of tree diseases, the array of things one can do with information from space is remarkable. It is changing our ideas of what woodland is and where it is located because we find that many urban areas and suburbs have so many trees along roadsides and in gardens that they are effectively woodlands.

Satellite Earth observation is a potentially disruptive technology that can completely change the way we do things and government is no exception. I believe the challenge set out by the Chancellor can be partly met by the rapid adoption and expansion of Earth observation in Government. This is not to say that Government has been slow to use EO in any way. Defence is a leading user of EO as is Defra when it uses it to help monitor agriculture, forestry, habitats and flood events, but more could be done.

What has changed to make me say this? The lessons from Surrey Satellites Technology are only part of the story. The other part comes in the form of new satellite constellations, like the Copernicus  sentinel satellites I saw being built when I visited Airbus in Stevenage a few weeks ago. They will provide a continuous flow of freely available data which we need to use in business and in government.

At Surrey Satellites Ltd headquarters in Guildford

At Surrey Satellites Ltd headquarters in Guildford

Many years ago I was a student travelling on a train between Peterborough and Edinburgh and got into conversation with a technology sceptic. He proclaimed that although our train was averaging over 100 miles an hour, nothing had really changed since the Flying Scotsman travelled from Edinburgh to London averaging over 100 miles an hour many decades before. I pointed out that the Flying Scotsman record was a one-off and now trains regularly achieve the same speed several times a day.

The same principles apply to EO from satellites. We have been able to photograph the surface of the planet from space with useful precision for decades, but it is only now that this imagery is collected regularly and with sufficient reliability and accessibility to the every-day user, at a reasonable price, that it can start to replace older ways of working.

Encouraging people to adopt new ways of doing things can be difficult and government is no different. Defra is taking a lead by establishing a Centre of Excellence in Earth Observation which will lead the necessary discussion with those who develop policy and delivery communities about how satellite EO can change our ways of working. This is also aimed at helping to stimulate the businesses sector to take up this challenge because the real benefits will only truly accrue when EO becomes a part of the daily life and decision making in our productive and service industries. For example, supplying data about the distribution of nutrients within fields and feeding this in to the sophisticated robotic systems used by some of our best farmers is likely to be with us very soon. This can reduce costs for the farmer and potentially reduce fertiliser use and the environmental problems this causes.

I see EO as a transformational technology making us look forward to a better future. Its potential applications when placed in the hands of imaginative people are vast and almost limitless. A cross-Whitehall group, chaired by the Permanent Secretary of DECC with me as his deputy, has been assembled to help drive the uptake of EO technologies to help government improve its ways of work and to make the kind of step changes in efficiency envisaged by the Chancellor.