Skip to content

An Ideal Spot for Satellite-Based Remote Sensing

Tromsø is a hub for many types of high-knowledge industries. One of these is the satellite-based remote sensing cluster – a consequence of the city’s high northern latitude. The cluster is involved in a broad range of activities, from trials flying unmanned aircraft systems through volcanic ash to the use of satellite images to monitor catastrophic oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tromsø, together with Svalbard, is a natural place for Norway’s space-related industries because of its proximity to the North Pole. Due to this northern location, these satellites are in reach for every overpass, an important tool for climate, meteorology, environment and security.

Its ideal location has attracted a large space-related research and business community to the area. More than 200 people within this industry in Tromsø generate close to NOK 400 million annually, according to Jan Petter Pedersen, Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) vice president, responsible for new products and services.

KSAT is the largest company in this cluster with operation of four ground stations, including SvalSat in Svalbard, the only commercial ground station in the world able to provide all-orbit support (14 passes per day). KSAT operates within two business segments: services to satellites owners and operators for telemetry, commanding, tracking and control and Earth observation data and information services to operational users.

From Aurora to Oil Spills

KSAT was one of the first space-related companies to establish here in the 1960s with the Tromsø Satellite Station as a way to receive data from American meteorological satellites in polar orbits. But the beginnings of Tromso’s space adventure go back to the early 1900s when researchers studied the aurora borealis, said Pedersen.

KSAT has for years focused on maritime applications derived from Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), including global ship traffic and oil spill monitoring. It is the lead company in the European Maritime Agency’s Clean Net Service, which provides EU member states with monitoring and reports of illegal discharges and accidental oil spills at sea within 30 minutes from acquisition. One of its most challenging jobs recently was working with BP to chart the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company is currently looking at new business areas, such as the monitoring of biomass in the forests for global carbon tracking. Satellite images can map the extent and density of the rain forest and boreal forest in northern latitudes for extrapolation into carbon measurements. Another evolving application is ice routing for ship traffic.

“Everybody expects in the next 20 years that it will be possible to sail through the North East Passage,” said Pedersen. “There will be an increasing need for updated information for traffic security in this region. We therefore believe that our new service for the detection and monitoring of icebergs will have commercial benefits for us.”

Centre for Remote Technology

KSAT is one of several key players in the remote sensing cluster in Tromsø, along with the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of Tromsø, Norwegian Research Institute (Norut), Kongsberg Spacetec, and the Norwegian Polar Institute. Together they created the Tromsø Centre for Remote Technology (TCRT) in January 2008 to meet the increasing need for cooperation between the owners amid strong international competition. They represent the whole value chain, from research, technology development and service delivery.

“We saw the benefits of creating one entity where we could talk with one voice,” said Pedersen. “The catalyst was the ongoing work on the BarentsWatch initiative.” BarentsWatch is the government’s plan for a holistic monitoring and surveillance system for the Barents Sea.

BarentsWatch has been among the most important projects at the Tromsø Remote Technology Centre, according to Øyvind Hilmarsen, TCRT managing director. The government decided this June to locate the first phase of BarentsWatch, an open civil system for maritime, environmental and climate change monitoring, at the new climate centre in Tromsø. TCRT has been working on behalf of the remote sensing community in Tromsø to possibly deliver future services to BarentsWatch, such as satellite images.

Another of the centre’s important contributions has been the establishment of the Barents Remote Sensing School this year and the creation of the Forum for Remote Technology to broaden the centre’s network base. There are currently 14 companies engaged in the forum.

They discuss applications for EU and Norwegian research programmes an other forms of collaboration.

In the future, the centre hopes to win Norwegian Research Council approval this year to establish a centre for satellite based earth observation research in Tromsø called SatCent and be part of an eventual new Arctic EU information centre, said Hilmarsen.

Flying Drones through Volcanic Ash

Another key TRCT participant, Norut, is gaining recognition for its work with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). It sent a drone fitted with air particle sampling instruments in May, six weeks after the volcanic ash clouds grounded aircraft all throughout Europe. This technology can be used to monitor ash from future eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. The drones can be also used for surveillance of land and sea areas, such as mapping of oil spills and search and rescue work.

Norut recently made a presentation in July for the European Commission on the use of light UAS for scientific purposes and ash measurement at the European High Level UAS Conference in Brussels. It is also working with the EC on a four-year COST action on the use of UAS for atmospheric research.

Norut currently has drones in Greenland conducting measurements of soot in the ice sheet. The aim is to study the impact of long distance transportation of soot in the atmosphere from industry and forest fires has on ice sheet melting in the interior of Greenland.