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Exciting Times for space tech in Germany

©geospatialworld, Oct 2014. The German Remote Sensing Data Center aims to ensure global earth observation at high temporal and spatial resolution, and to contribute to an understanding of global change processes. Prof. Dr. Stefan Dech, Director, DLR, German Remote Sensing Data Center (DFD), explains how DFD will contribute to national and European earth observation missions

How has the German Remote Sensing Data Center (DFD) evolved over the years?

The mission of the German Remote Sensing Data Center (DFD) is to support science, industry, and the general public, enabling informed decision making in the context of global change on the basis of satellite- based earth observation techniques. DFD and its sister-institute, the Remote Sensing Technology Institute (IMF) together comprise the Earth Observation Center (EOC), which has become a centre of competence for earth observation in Germany. It belongs to the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which is the country’s national institution for aerospace, energy and transportation research. At DFD, we have set ourselves the task of making remote sensing an indispensable tool for earth stewardship. We operate national and international satellite data receiving stations which enable direct access to data from many earth observation missions, derive value-added information products from raw data, and archive and disseminate such products and information to the end users. We also host the World Data Center for Remote Sensing of the Atmosphere (WDC-RSAT) — a user service that processes, archives, and distributes atmospheric in- formation. Today, DFD is Germany’s most important EO institution. There is no other institution in Europe with a comparable architecture comprised of geoscience research, engineering advances, round-the-clock uninterrupted operation of receiving stations, and a national data archive.

Which are the sectors in Germany that are important users of remote sensing technology?

End users of DFD products and services are the Federal national government, states, and communities; international government bodies and line agencies, large international and non-governmental organisations; and of course the industry and the media. For example, during the disastrous tsunami in Indian Ocean, in December 2004, DFD delivered maps within 48 hours to relief organisations such as Germany’s Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), the German Red Cross, or ‘Médecins sans Frontières’. Our map products, which depicted damage extent and accessibility challenges, were requested by television, print, and online media to inform the public. At that time, we founded the Center for Satellite based Crisis Information (ZKI), which has been actively contributing to disaster related mapping activities globally for 10 years now.

What are the current trends in the earth observation industry in Germany?

Earth observation in Germany is driven by large research organisations — German as well as Germany-based international companies — as well as small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs), and to a certain degree by R&D initiated at universities. For example, the German satellite TerraSAR-X, which was realised via a public-private partnership between DLR and EADS Astrium, has been effective in boosting synthetic aperture radar (SAR) based earth observation applications. The mapping and analysis of urban area floods, surface motion, and many other application fields have profited greatly from this sensor. The success of TerraSAR-X led to the launch of the TanDEM-X satellite, enabling exact and consistent topographic mapping of our planet at unprecedented precision. EADS Astrium, a company that has been fused with Cassidian and Airbus Military to form the new Airbus branch Airbus Defence and Space, with headquarters in Munich, will be responsible for commercially distributing the resulting so-called WorldDEM dataset.

A trend which we observe at the global scale is the opening up of data archives, making earth observation data freely available. Here, the USA has set the pace with the free provision of a large number of medium resolution datasets, as well as products provided by the MODIS and Landsat science teams. Landsat data is also freely available to the global community, and the EU and the European Space Agency are already following this path by providing easy access to historic ENVISAT satellite data and making the upcoming Sentinel sensor fleet data freely available. The large amount of free data of course poses challenges for many analysts and scientists with respect to storage space and data processing.

The latest trend of launching CubeSats — miniature satellites — might change EO. CubeSats form the backbone of commercial ventures such as PlanetLabs. DLR has helped Berlin University of Technology (TU Berlin) to launch its CubeSats BEESAT-1 to BEESAT-3, a small mission meant for educational purposes.

Another trend which will make a difference in the EO industry in the future is development of so-called citizen science applications. We are living at a time when nearly every citizen owns a smartphone. The devices are increasingly capable of not only collecting GPS coordinates and photographs, but evolve more and more towards being mini-laboratories that can be equipped to measure atmospheric parameters such as air temperature, moisture, and particle density, or can even be used to steer tiny mini-drones. At the same time, the challenge of Big Data will remain: the tricky task will be to extract 5% of useful information and data from the huge amount of not-so-useful data.

How would you rank the German remote sensing industry in terms of the technology innovations?

Germany’s major strength is in airborne and spaceborne SAR sensor and platform development. At the global level, we are in the same league as the USA, France, Italy, or Japan. In the field of optical sensor development, France is a strong player within Europe, and historically there has always been a bit of competition between the two countries, with France setting the pace. However, German companies such as Jenoptik, OHB System (including the former Kayser-Threde), and Astro- und Feinwerktechnik Adlershof are often high in demand when it comes to sensor technology. The Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), for example, has cooperated with German private-public partnerships for many years, and relies on DLR technology to boost its national KOMPSAT satellite programme. Furthermore, international players like Airbus Defence and Space have branch offices in Germany.

Additionally, several dozen SMEs focussing on data processing and remote sensing applications have been established in recent years. Most of them are partners of DFD in numerous projects, such as the companies GAF and the former Euromap, European Space Imaging, BlackBridge, EOMAP, Brockman Consult, Remote Sensing Solutions GmbH, EFTAS, and CloudEO, to name a few. The German remote sensing industry is well-respected on the global scene, valued for high precision technology and high quality information products.

What is the strategy to support local SMEs and to raise the profile of the geospatial industry in Germany?

DFD has already been an incubator for SMEs in Germany for more than three decades. Several small companies have been successfully founded either by former DFD experts or with the strong support of the DFD directorate. The EOMAP, specialising in information products for oceans and inland waters, was founded in 2006 by one of our former post-doctoral scientists. Another SME Green Spin, focussing on satellite- based solutions for efficient agricultural management, has evolved from the remote sensing department at the University of Würzburg, and has a solid backup via the knowledge and competence available at DFD. DLR furthermore offers technology marketing support for colleagues who would like to found a company and continue their career on the open market. The fact that space science in Germany is funded and supported by the BMWi ensures bridging of the gap between science and industry. In this way utmost transparency between both sectors is ensured, and cooperation can easily be backed up and strengthened.

Is DFD involved in skill development or training?

While training and capacity building is not the main mandate of DFD, many of our scientists are actively involved in such activities around the globe. Some of our experts — especially from the geoscience research departments — assist the next generation of scientists and frequently teach at German universities. We have close links with the Munich University of Technology, and the University of Augsburg. Furthermore, some of our group leaders teach during summer schools or short workshops of the European Space Agency (ESA) and other space agencies. In many of our bilateral and international applied research projects we support local partners in the focus countries with training in remote sensing data analysis. Such training has — for example — been well received by institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) and by surveying and mapping agencies in Indonesia and Kazakhstan. At the moment, we are actively involved in IT training in the Chinese Yellow River Delta, where DFD, jointly with its Chinese partners, is implementing an environmental information system to support local stakeholders’ planning tasks.

Furthermore, DFD actively contributes to the DLR School Lab. DLR operates 12 school labs at 12 different locations in Germany. One of them is located on our premises in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich.

How do you see remote sensing technology and related industry evolving in the coming years in Germany?

I am confident that exciting times lie ahead of us. More and more earth observing sensors are being launched into orbit — especially emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil or Vietnam have started building up monitoring fleets. In February 2013, Landsat 8 was launched by the USA, granting mission continuity to this important sensor line. And this spring, the ESA has launched Sentinel-1 — the first of a fleet of so-called Sentinel satellites. The Sentinels are a milestone in European earth observation. The very next launch will be Sentinel-2, which is scheduled for April 2015. DFD plans to acquire, process, and use Sentinel-2 data as part of the national collaborative Copernicus ground segment and initiatives such as the Bavarian Copernicus Center.

Cloud computing will revolutionise the way we store and process earth observation information. An ever increasing IT affinity in our society will influence how we transport and validate our results. Environmental information systems and decision support systems will become standard tools for visualising and sharing our data products and findings. While there definitely is a trend towards privatisation of the space sector, there also is a trend towards more input from the global public — be it via CubeSats, funding projects, or mobile data uploading. Our society is greatly fascinated by space, remote sensing and earth observation, and I observe an increase in participation; maybe one could even call it democratisation. These are truly exciting times!

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