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CSIR warns global shake-up in Earth Observation will affect South African sector

(By Keith Campbell, Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor) Worldwide, the Earth Observation (EO) sector is being shaken-up by disruptive innovations by major enterprises.

“Globally, traditional EO value chains are changing radically due to technological developments, rapid commercialisation and operationalisation by, especially, leading IT [information technology] companies,” highlighted Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Meraka Institute chief scientist in EO science and IT Dr Konrad Wessels.

He was speaking at the EO Indaba in Pretoria on Monday. “These developments are being actively funded by the European Commission and UK government agencies, and in the US by venture capital, to increase the competitiveness of their EO offerings.”

The traditional EO value chain was: sensors provide raw data; this is processed into spatial data information; this is subject to analysis and/or turned into application products and/or services; and these are then used to create decision support tools. Decision support tools must be customized for each client. Traditionally, different types of companies or agencies were responsible for different elements of this value chain. Thus, there were (and still are) satellite-owning and -operating companies or agencies, responsible for the sensors and the provision of raw data. Then other companies or agencies processed and analysed it. Then yet more companies created and sold application products and services and decision support tools.

But now, major value-added service providers have been expanding “up-stream” (to use industrial jargon) and now own and operate their one satellites and provide their own raw data, and carry out their own processing and analyses, cutting out everyone else. Conversely, satellite builders and data providers are moving “down-stream”, providing value-added services. These developments have potentially serious consequences for smaller players in the EO business, like South Africa.

“It’s been ten years since South Africa’s EO Strategy was launched. I think we’ve come a long way,” Wessels said. “Our common vision is to use EO for societal benefits. But our objective now is to ensure that the South African EO community maintains market share in EO. It is truly becoming a Big Data challenge. EO is really a part of a wider data economy.”

“Our future vision is that South Africa’s EO and Space Engineering community leads the development of EO applications and services in Africa,” he affirmed. Space engineers design and build satellites. If they and the EO people do not stand together then South Africa could be sidelined by the global EO majors, even in Africa. And to compete, it is also very important to develop local staff. The EO sector needs a high proportion of postgraduates in its ranks.

Wessels listed the expectations of the CSIR’s own EO community. These are: an enabling environment created under the leadership of the Department of Science and Technology and the South African National Space Agency. The creation of opportunities for international collaboration, especially in Africa. Access to EO data and EO data infrastructure. Less competition in South Africa for small projects. More funding opportunities for EO research and development and application development. Coordination between satellite engineers and EO application developers. Collaboration with local industry. And technology transfer to local industry. In South Africa, the need was to build relationships, he stressed, not delineate territories.