Earth Observation: on the cusp of a revolution

New technology  tends to trickle in to our lives. It arrives with an explosion of excitement and promise but a steady journey then ensues as the much vaunted tech becomes developed and ubiquitous enough to transform our expectations and truly revolutionise our world. When it comes to satellites and the data we get from them, we have made stunning progress on many such journeys, with pause-able high definition TV and navigation systems on phones now very much the norm. However, after its beginnings in the 70s, the Earth Observation journey – the journey to use data from above clouds to revolutionise our understanding of our planet – is so far less travelled. But this may be about to change…

A few TV sets ago I took the plunge and installed a satellite dish on my roof (mine is discretely hidden behind a vigorous Clematis montana). Satellite TV was new and exciting but in truth, when I plugged the dish into my TV and turned it on, the fundamentals hadn’t changed – it was still more or less the same experience but with more channels and marginally better picture quality. But now, in 2015, the massive increases in the data we can get from satellites, coupled with vastly increased data flow on the internet has meant our TV watching experience has been transformed – it’s now the norm to have hundreds of channels of high definition pictured beamed to our TVs, we can pause and rewind live TV and we can catch up on programmes ‘on demand’ whenever we want. While the fanfare came as satellite dishes were fist installed on our roofs, it is far more recently that satellites have ‘revolutionised’ our TV watching.

It’s just the same with satellite navigation. In the early days it was just a privileged few who could (just about) rely on sat nav systems built in to their high end cars to get them from A to B.  But now, in 2015, the sat navs most of us have built in to our smart phones have capabilities far exceeding the original cumbersome in-car systems, from telling us when the next bus is coming to integrating live traffic information to tell us at each turn the current quickest route to our destination. To me, the revolution really came when sat navs became ubiquitous, reliable and highly featured, not when they first arrived on the scene.

So satellites have steadily transformed how we access information and how we get around, but communications and positioning are just two of the three major functions supplied by satellite space technologies. The third is observation, and this is an area where we haven’t yet seen the same sort of seismic shift in capability, the same revolution.

Generally known by the jargon term Earth Observation, or just EO, this revolution is one about using data from satellites and even from unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to help us understand more about our world.  The journey began with the launch of the  US ‘Landsat’ system of satellites in 1972. Once positioned, it began collecting pictures of the surface of the planet that gave an eagle-eye view of what covered the surface of the Earth – crops, grasslands, forests, lakes, rivers, mountains  and ice  – like we’d never seen before.  The possibilities, and opportunities opened up by this data seemed limitless, providing invaluable information about natural resources, land, roads and infrastructure to help us build capabilities in the most efficient ways possible and help us to protect tour environment.

But while the journey started in 1972, we’ve been struggling ever since to know how to deal with this avalanche of data and to turn it in to useful information. We have launched more and more EO satellites in the belief that, one day, our ability to assimilate and process all the data that they chuck at us will catch up. Now, finally, I think we have. The reason? A willingness to share.

A willingness to share

In the past, the only way to access the information within the data transmitted from EO satellites was to obtain a digital image, often by paying a lot of money for it, and then give it to another kind of techno-geek to process the information it contained. This was expensive, and the end result did not always answer the need. However, the world of EO has changed. Thanks partly to enlightened attitudes on the part of those now responsible for operating these EO satellites, most of the data from them is now being made free at the point of use. For example, all the data from the new Copernicus satellite system funded by the EU, the updated Landsat system funded by the US is now freely available to anybody who wants it and they are taking a similar approach in China. While previously this data would have just lead to the problem of data overload (or ‘data poisoning’ as I sometimes call it), the simultaneous revolution of cloud computing enables the multiple petabytes of data that emerge from these systems (Copernicus chucks around 8 terabytes of data at us each day) to be stored on-line and beCloudSat_-_Artist_Concept available, anywhere in the world, at the press of a button.

The new culture of ‘sharing’ has of course not emerged solely as a result of ‘caring. ’ The market, including many small companies but also some of the big international aerospace and data companies, are latching on to new business models for delivering the data. In the past, when one accessed an image of the surface of the Earth most of the data you bought was irrelevant and would be thrown away. In the near future the user will only need to pay for the data they actually use. This could reduce the cost of the same piece of information by many thousands of times. The development of new apps will mean that there will be many more users so, rather than charging a very small number of specialist users a lot of money for access to the information, the business model is for those supplying the services to recover their costs by spreading micro-payments across many millions of users – payments so small that each individual user will hardly notice them. Information that probably cost many tens of thousands of pounds to produce in the past and was in the hands of just a few people, will costs fractions of a penny in the future and be in the hands of millions of people.

A simple change of attitude and approach has turned EO on its head. While the Earth Observation revolution may have officially started in the 70’s, I think it is now, thanks to the new spirit of openness, that Earth Observation data can truly start to revolutionise our understanding of our world.

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