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Remote sensing: Making sense of the European EO industry

Chetan Pradhan, Chairman of the Board of EARSC, spoke to SciTech Europa about the Earth Observation industry in Europe today and how it is developing.

The European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) is the European organisation which – on a non-profit basis – promotes the use of Earth Observation (EO) technology and especially the companies in Europe which offer EO-related products and services. It is the industry body which represents the EO geo-information services sector in Europe, and its members cover the full EO services value chain including commercial operators of EO satellites, resellers of data, value-adding companies, geospatial information suppliers, consultancies and software providers.

The Association maintains close links with key European Institutions, including the European Commission, European Parliament, European Environment Agency and other agencies, as well as global bodies such as GEO (Group on Earth Observations), providing a unified voice on wider European and global issues of importance to the industrial sector.

EARSC also maintains connections with a number of other umbrella organisations at European and National levels. It works with Eurogi (as an observer member), Eurisy, Eurospace, NEREUS in Brussels, Belgium, and with National Associations where they exist.

SciTech Europa Quarterly spoke to Chetan Pradhan, Chairman of EARSC’s board of directors, about the EO industry in Europe today and how it is developing.

What do you feel have been the biggest developments in the EO sector in Europe in recent years?

There are many, but I would particularly highlight three things here:
• The EU Copernicus programme
• The impact of advances in the information technology sector
• The rise of commercial Earth Observation initiatives.

Regarding Copernicus, there is no denying the substantial impact this programme has had on the EO sector in Europe, with the investment of €4.3bn of EU funding in the period 2014-2020, the successful deployment of a constellation of operational Sentinel satellites, the free and open data policy, and the comprehensive programme of downstream services. These have really enabled the EO services sector to step up a gear to develop and deliver a range of new products and services to public and private sector customers both within Europe and outside of it.

Advances in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) have also had a huge impact. Whereas in the past it took days or weeks to access the latest Earth Observation data, today it is available in hours or minutes thanks to high bandwidth links and cloud computing, which also enable the data to be processed into information products and delivered to end-users and customers equally fast.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are enabling our sector to derive ever-more sophisticated insights and analytics from EO data, and to combine it with novel data feeds from in-situ sensors and even unstructured data sources such as social media feeds, news channels, mobile devices and crowdsourcing. The range of applications and services that could be developed using this rich mix of information sources is very exciting indeed and we are watching this closely.

Thirdly, we are seeing increasing interest in commercial Earth Observation initiatives around the world, including here in Europe. Reduced build and launch costs and using ‘off the shelf’ commercial technologies such as those from digital cameras and mobile phones to reduce the size and weight of the satellites are leading to commercial interest in building and launching constellations of small, inexpensive satellites that can provide higher temporal and spatial coverage than the large institutional satellites. These satellites are enabling access to novel data types such as small radar constellations, video from space, or small hyperspectral missions.

Of course, underpinning all this excitement in Europe is the fact that our sector continues to rely upon the solid foundation that has been built up over many years through Earth Observation programmes at the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Meteorological Satellite Agency (EUMETSAT), and the Horizon 2020 Space Programme and its precursor FP6/FP7 programmes. Without these, we would not have been well positioned to take advantage of the developments outlined above.

How important is maintaining links with key European Institutions (the European Commission, ESA, Eumetsat, etc.)? How do you ensure that relevant policy information is communicated to industry?

Of course, this is vitally important. The Earth Observation services sector in Europe would not be where it is today without the institutional programmes – Europe has invested significantly in the development of the sector, notably through the EC-ESA Copernicus programme, the ESA ‘Earth Explorer’ science programme, the Eumetsat meteorological satellite programme, and the Horizon 2020 Space programme. All of these programmes have helped industry develop technologies and capabilities, both upstream and downstream, that have led to spin-off commercial success for the sector, in Europe and in export markets. In addition to being a key sponsor, the public sector is also the largest customer for Earth Observation-derived services in Europe – we estimate that 65% of the market for such services is governmental, of which 50% is for government as customer, and 15% is for R&D. The remaining 35% is commercial.

To communicate effectively with our members, EARSC has a range of instruments. Firstly, there is the eoMAG, our quarterly online publication which has over 3,000 subscribers and features news and announcements of significant events and developments in the sector, including from our members and from the European institutions. Secondly, we maintain a comprehensive online portal, in which our members can find all sorts of relevant information, news and announcements – for example, all the latest invitations to tender from ESA, EC, EUMETSAT and others are all routinely listed here for the benefit of our members. Finally, there is our monthly report which provides our members with up-to-date information on events, meetings and EARSC project activities.

In addition, EARSC routinely publishes position papers reacting to key policy information coming from the key European Institutions to make the industry views and perspective known to these institutions. Our feedback and published papers have often been instrumental in bringing about shifts in policy that have made conditions better for industry.

At the national level, how would you characterise the implementation – or lack thereof – of national associations in the field of EO? How do you ensure that the industry is adequately represented when they are absent?

This does tend to vary greatly from country to country. In some countries we see dedicated and thriving national associations, like the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies (BARSC) in the UK, which has over 30 member companies, whilst in other countries there is really no equivalent. For EARSC, the focus is on being inclusive to industry from all across Europe – we currently have 102 members, spread across 23 European countries and Canada (which we include because Canada also participates in ESA EO programmes).

We therefore do not see the absence of remote sensing national associations as a particular hindrance – we serve European remote sensing industry best by representing the industry at European level, working to find consensus amongst our members even in cases where national priorities and ambitions may be different. The European institutions also find it extremely efficient to be able to engage with a single association that represents the interests of the European remote sensing and Earth Observation industry, rather than having to engage with 27 or 28 individual national trade associations.

EARSC is calling for stronger partnership between the Earth Observation industry and public sector institutions in Europe to build a better future together. What will this entail?

The key word here is ‘partnership’! There is already a very strong relationship between the EO industry and the public sector in Europe, of course, but we would like to build further upon this in order to ensure that the benefits of Europe’s substantial investment in Copernicus are realised in Europe. We see four key elements to this:

• Firstly, we need clarity of the roles of the public and private sectors so as to enable industry to invest in developing new services with confidence that the same service won’t be offered for free by a public institution in future.
• Secondly, we would like industry views to be factored in at an early stage in policy and programmatic decisions. This will help to ensure that new systems and services are conceived in a way that maximises the future commercialisation potential.
• Thirdly, we encourage the public sector to move away from investing in infrastructure and move increasingly towards procuring services from industry, especially in areas where there is a proven commercial capability and market.
• Finally, we call upon the public sector to provide adequate support to the transition of the latest cutting edge R&D from European institutions in order to develop successful demonstrations and to then go on to commercial exploitation.

Accessing markets outside the EU is crucial for jobs and growth within the sector. How difficult is this, and how is EARSC helping European industry to access these markets?

It is certainly difficult for European companies to do this. In 2016, the sector revenue in Europe was over €1.2bn, giving work to 7,700 highly skilled employees. However, the sector is dominated by SMEs, with over 95% of the companies having fewer than 50 persons and over 60% having fewer than 10 persons employed. Small companies do not have the resources and bandwidth to conduct extensive exploration of export markets on their own, and EARSC sees this as a key area in which it can support its members.
We have a dedicated member of the EARSC team assigned to manage our ‘internationalisation’ agenda, which is precisely about helping our members to access markets outside of Europe.

We have organised several trade missions for EARSC members to engage with potential customers and other stakeholders in export markets, the most recent ones being to Australia in March 2018, Japan in September 2017, and Chile in September 2017. We have entered into bilateral agreements to foster co-operation and facilitate dialogue, notably with Japan Space Systems, with the EuroChile business foundation, and with the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment.

Moving forwards, what will EARSC’s main priorities be?

We will certainly continue to develop on all the fronts I have already mentioned – communications, partnerships, internationalisation, and creating opportunities for our sector to grow and flourish. One exciting development I have not mentioned yet is the eoMALL, which is EARSC’s initiative to create an online marketplace for European EO services – we are in the advanced stages of developing this and hope to have a first version going live before the end of 2018.

We will also continue to focus on growth of membership of the association, to make ourselves even more representative of the overall sector in Europe; and to focus on continued engagement with the European institutions so as to bring about relevant changes in policy to ensure the conditions for private sector industry in European remote sensing and EO programmes are suited to delivering continued economic growth and associated benefits back to Europe.

All of these activities need to be adequately resourced and I can envisage the secretariat of EARSC continuing to grow in the coming years to increase its capacity to take on a steadily increasing workload for the benefit of the EO and remote sensing services sector in Europe.