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Satellite imagery connects the dots for advanced solutions on the ground

When wildfires start blazing across remote parts of South Africa, electricity providers, whose transmission lines can burn up, take a hit. Monitoring every inch of these lines by CCTV or by human eye would be costly, but commercial satellite technology, in combination with data-crunching software and internet connectivity, is equipped to solve this. All the problem needed was someone to connect the dots.

Those dots were connected in 2013 by Afis – Advanced Fire Information System – the app made by a team from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Meraka Institute in Pretoria. The free Afis phone app enables location tracking, and you can instantly see the fires raging, how likely they are to occur in the next few days and when the last ones happened.

This type of service, which uses space hardware to solve terrestrial business problems, can be used to streamline almost every major industry and service imaginable, from health care to oil to education to water management. It is an area where the Mena region has plenty of room to grow.

But many companies and potential investors in this type of innovation do not yet understand these implications, so they are not yet taking full advantage of all the possibilities opened up by the convergence of satellites that are cheap to launch and software that can process torrents of data in real time.

That’s the view of Lee Annamalai, a member of the team that launched Afis. He heads space applications R&D, innovation and commercialisation at the Meraka Institute and has served as a board member of the South African Space Agency. “Uptake [of space-tech applications] by industries is still slow,” he says. “There is still some scepticism that these futuristic solutions can actually yield benefits. Some attention to decision-maker education and marketing would make a big difference.” Where innovations are happening in this realm, he says, are mostly in the US, India, Brazil, Canada, China and Japan.

However, that could be changing. With its new space agency, startup-friendly infrastructure and planned 2021 Mission to Mars, the UAE is well positioned to capitalise on the commercial potential of Earth-observation satellites and their manifold applications. And in November, a new venture capital fund was launched by the Jordanian start-up incubator Oasis 500 (in partnership with the European Space Agency and the European Investment Bank) to encourage entrepreneurs in the Mena region to develop new terrestrial applications of space-based technologies.

These “will be in high demand in the Mena region”, says Suleiman Arabiat, the fund’s project manager, “especially as the communications infrastructure is not highly developed and as there’s a vast need to monitor and communicate assets across the region’s less-populated areas”.

Entrepreneurs who successfully pitch for funding to apply “enhanced connectivity” and “advanced space system applications” to areas such as logistics, water management, agriculture, emergency relief, energy, health and education will receive seed investment of €50,000 (Dh209,239) to €250,000, as well as training and mentorship.

When asked what areas he considers to be ripe for innovation, Mr Annamalai mentions that water quality, energy security and border surveillance are three big fields that can be monitored remotely. He also says that companies are working on remote sensors for increasingly specific phenomena, such as ship transponder signals, atmospheric physics and lightning. Another significant field of research is “precision agriculture”: connecting on-the-ground sensors to GPS-generated maps to create a nuanced system for a maximum yield at minimum cost.

Although there are barriers to entry for start-ups wanting to get into this field, says Mr Annamalai – such as access to the necessary satellite data and to the bandwidth and processing power needed to crunch those numbers – there are some advantages to innovating in “resource-constrained countries”. Developers there, he says, “are producing interesting applications that are highly competitive, due to the fact that they are designed to work more efficiently”.

Afis demonstrates that the number of applications from satellite data can be limitless, with commercial appeal around the world. When you add smart-city infrastructure into the mix, it is really possible to transform services and industries such as agriculture, logistics and transport, and to monitor and mitigate the environmental impact of businesses.