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The changing world of satellite data – Europe taken by surprise?

Seventeen years ago the EU and the European Space Agency (ESA) adopted the Baveno Manifesto laying the ground for a European Earth Observation (EO) system – the Copernicus Programme.

The first of the “Sentinel” satellites dedicated to this programme started to transmit data last autumn. The deployment of the first Sentinel, alongside the US Landsat, marks a step change in the volumes of data available. The dizzying growth of data availability will continue as the Sentinel programme progresses. When fully operational eight terabytes of new data per day will be available from the Copernicus programme, equivalent to eight computer hard drives worth, and all of it free to all for download.

The European Earth Observation Industry’s representative body, EARSC, found in 2013 that access to Sentinel data was seen as the biggest benefit of Copernicus. Nevertheless the priority of ESA and the European Commission has been to support the provision of six facilities providing information services in specific environmental areas. This has meant that ESA’s downloading and processing capacity is making available only a limited amount of Sentinel data, and that it archives material for only a short period. Realisation of the enormity of the task of managing the newly-available data, of the potential for application development built on these data, and dissatisfaction with current arrangements, have emerged as serious issues only quite slowly.

As in other sectors, the emergence of Big Data from satellite EO implies not just more of the same approach to data management, but rather the need to apply more sophisticated techniques both to deal with massively greater data volumes and to exploit them in order to develop new products. Furthermore Copernicus data are available free, so the quantities used are less constrained than from other sources, and this will promote greater usage. These factors will promote a shift of focus away from individual scenes towards the use of “image stacks” and “data cubes” based on a continuous flow of data, permitting dynamic analysis using observations at pixel level rather than whole images. This in turn implies more automatic processing, and a requirement for a high standard of pre-processing. Such tasks can most efficiently be done by central data hubs rather than requiring users to do the job themselves.

ESA’s response has been to develop the Collaborative Ground Segment concept, providing ESA member states with direct access to Sentinel data which they can process and archive themselves. So far, Finland, France, Germany, Greece and Italy and UK have signed agreements providing access to this facility. The UK is in a particularly strong position because of the infrastructure which it has created to make data available to both commercial and academic users through its Satellite Data Hub. While many of our European competitors have plans to develop their own facilities, they acknowledge that at this stage the UK is in the lead.
The ESA approach is “bottom-up” – seeking to help member states to meet their own needs, rather than promoting a broad strategic approach, and exploitation of the new data flows has been uncoordinated. The European Commission has since the start of the year started (perhaps belatedly) to take an active approach, aimed at promoting European leadership – characterised as meeting the “Google Challenge” – and ensuring a level playing field for European operators. Commission thinking is becoming clearer, and they are likely to promote a joint process to integrate their approach and ESA’s. The period between now and 2017 is likely to be crucial in developing the solution to these issues.

The other big European space players often seem less concerned with exploiting space assets to promote economic growth and government efficiency than is the UK, and it will be important for the UK to ensure that the needs of real users are prioritised.

Beta Technology, with its experience in the management of European activity, its familiarity with a wide range of UK and international business, and a strong space background, is in a good position to help exploit the enormous new opportunities in this area.