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Editorial Spring 2014

Congratulations to ESA, Thales Alenia Space and all those involved in building and launching Sentinel 1; the first satellite in the Copernicus series. Credit also to the European Commission for having steered a complex path to reach the milestone achieved last Thursday. Photo:Sentinel1©ESA

The launch of Sentinel 1 is truly a seminal event. According to my Collins English dictionary, seminal stems from the latin seminalis literally meaning “belonging to seed”. It goes on to give the definition “Strongly influence future events or highly influential” and the Wiktionary on-line gives it as “Highly influential, especially in some original way, and providing a basis for future development or research”.

Now this certainly describes Sentinel 1. In a few days’ time we expect to see the first radar image before a 6 month period of commissioning to calibrate and validate the data coming from the satellite. We consider that the Gigabytes of data to be collected every day will lead to good opportunities both for industry and for science. There is no doubt that it will be “highly influential” and will it will certainly provide a strong basis “for future development and research”.

The objectives of Copernicus are defined in the EC regulation as being (1) to provide a reliable source of geo-information to EU public customers and (2) to develop the EU downstream services industry. I paraphrase the objectives and note that the downstream industry in this case includes both data suppliers (satellite operators; sometimes called the midstream) as well as value-adding companies.

To achieve the second objective will require careful measures particularly regarding industry access to the data as well as the rules of procurement for the Copernicus Core services. We consider that two conditions are essential that:
1. competences necessary to deliver the Copernicus services shall be developed within or at least fully available to the EO services industry.
2. it will always be possible to receive competing bids for each of the services which will be procured.

How best to achieve this? Various measures will be possible but, as I said at the recent EC conference on Big Data held in Brussels, I see six steps to be necessary to enable and deliver the full economic benefits:

  • 1. Free and open access to the data,
  • 2. Easy access to the data,
  • 3. Platforms to enable the combination of different types of data from different sources,
  • 4. Channels to deliver information products effectively and efficiently,
  • 5. Quality assurance and a scheme for certified products,
  • 6. Creating an enterprise culture.

Six core services are defined: land, marine, climate change, atmosphere, emergency and security; each of these will cover a range of specific products. The procurement of each service will be delegated to external bodies and although some had anticipated that industry could fill this role, the reality is that to be qualified to manage public funds through delegation, certain criteria must be met which it is very difficult for a private company to achieve.

In any case, to meet the conditions for competition, industry will prefer to be on the supply side and to avoid any potential conflicts of interest in being both procurement agent and major supplier.

The authorities selected will then procure the services and here we do expect industry to play a full role. For industry to exploit Copernicus it must master the complete chain of competency necessary to generate the Core Services. Where these lie in industry, normal market rules will apply although the EC may need to be vigilant to ensure a fair and open competition. Where these lie in a public body, backed by public-sector/government funding some arrangements with an industrial prime will ne needed. Here we see a great potential for distortion of the market.

There are several reasons why a PSB should – or even must – play a role in the service provision. In some cases the technical skills and knowledge (for example mathematical models) rest in a PSB, whilst in other cases a PSB will be a key actor/agency in a Member State and hence will be unavoidable for political reasons. A further consideration will also be the research base which will drive future innovation and new products and help underpin both the competitive environment and the delivery of new and innovative services to public and private customers alike.

Care must then be taken to ensure that key organisations, necessary for technical or political reasons, are ready and willing to work with other partners and are not constrained to work in any one particular team. If competition is to be maintained, any organisation which has been funded through public grants and which has some unique skills or links to offer, must in some way be required to offer their services openly. Of course this will be quite difficult to arrange, especially given the European dimension, and even harder to enforce but we believe that it will be necessary if Copernicus is to deliver the full benefits foreseen by the EU policy makers.

The procurement rules should be such that competition is ensured and the public sector receives good value for money. A varied, competitive supply base has to be maintained on the industrial side and single-source providers should be open – and not closed – to competitive partnering. Without measures to achieve this we believe that the full opportunity will be lost and forecast jobs and economic benefits will not be achieved.

The successful launch of Sentinel 1 really does mark a seminal moment in the development of the geo-information services business. It is our goal to see the Copernicus seed grow into a flourishing European EO services industrial sector backed up by the extraordinary research capabilities which exist in Europe.

by Geoff Sawyer
EARSC Secretary General

Seminal: Strongly influence future events or highly influential