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Earth Observation: The Growth Story

The evolution of technologies like GIS, Image Processing, and PNT has enhanced the quality of imagery analysis to provide value-added digital services to diverse fields of applications. However, issues concerning cost, transparency, and trust continue to pose a challenge to the Earth Observation (EO) industry.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs’ (UNOOSA) document on the Space Economy Initiative defines the Space economy “as the full range of activities and the use of resources that create value and benefits to human beings in the course of exploring, researching, understanding, managing, and utilizing Space.” While the core elements of the Space economy are broadcasting and communications, Earth Observation (EO), satellite and launcher manufacture, related services, and ground equipment, it also includes all industries linked to it, such as, telecommunications, broadcasting, Internet, agriculture, forestry, architecture, engineering, and construction, to name a few. The Space economy was estimated to be worth $350 billion (Morgan Stanley) to $447 billion (Space Foundation) in 2019, just before the beginning of the Covid pandemic.

Investments in the Space economy continue to rise despite the ongoing battle against Covid. Space Foundation, a nonprofit advocate organization founded in 1983 for the global Space ecosystem, states in its publication, The Space Report 2021 Q2, that the global Space economy rose to $447 billion in 2021, an increase of 4.4% from a revised 2019 total of $428 billion. This $447 billion Space economy is 55% higher than what it was a decade ago and reflects a five-year trend of uninterrupted growth. Commercial Space activity grew by 6.6% to nearly $357 billion (Space Foundation) in 2020, representing close to 80% of the total Space economy. Global government Space spending fell by 1.2% in 2020 to $90.2 billion from a revised 2019 peak of $91.4 billion.

In terms of geography, USA, China, and Europe were the top three leaders and constituted 81% of the Space spending, followed by Japan and Russia. According to Morgan Stanley, Space impacts not only aerospace and defense but many other areas like IT hardware and telecom, and the overall earnings in the sector could rise to $1 trillion by 2040. While private equity projects in Space have grabbed headlines, public sector interest and investments are also significant. Morgan Stanley predicts that globally, governments will spend $181 billion on Space by 2040.

It is not difficult to understand these trends because the pandemic has shown that Space-based PNT (Position, Navigation, Timing), communications and EO are crucial as they provide innovative solutions in an environment of restricted movement. According to Liz Derr, Co-founder and CEO of Simularity, a geospatial intelligence company, “The global pandemic has shown us just how important these consumer-accessible technologies are. The companies that thrived during the pandemic are great examples of the success of 4IR technologies.” The future of innovation and efficiency lies in Space applications. “If I had to pick just three words to capture my conversations in this arena, they would be ‘Space is existential’, from the future of the planet to the future of commerce,” says Adam Jonas, Head of the Morgan Stanley Research Space Team.

He goes on to list climate change, Space debris, security and telecom as the major areas of application that will depend on increased capital formation through special purpose acquisition companies-like mechanisms and collaboration between existing aerospace players and new commercial players. The enhanced interest in Space also means more interplanetary campaigns for understanding the nature of the universe and a move towards the economic exploitation of celestial objects. There is a darker side relating to Space debris and the dangers it poses to Space assets.

The global Space economy rose to $447 billion in 2021, an increase of 4.4% from a revised 2019 total of $428 billion. This $447 billion Space economy is 55% higher than what it was a decade ago and reflects a five-year trend of uninterrupted growth

Earth Observation from Space

The field of EO from satellites has grown steadily and is expected to rise from its present value of $2.9 billion to $25.273 billion by 2040, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The use of such imagery, along with ground-based and aerial observations, has been in practice since long. In parallel, the evolution of technologies like Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Image Processing, and PNT has enhanced the quality of imagery analysis to provide value-added digital services to diverse fields of applications. Analytics alone adds $42 billion value to EO data. The PNT sector further adds $97.4 billion.

In the past, the EO field was dominated by big government players like Landsat from Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS), Copernicus from the European Space Agency (ESA) and IRS from Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), as well as efforts by Russia, China, Japan, and many other countries. Private players also joined the market with offerings of high-resolution optical data, which were subsequently acquired by Maxar through a process of mergers and acquisitions. However, the current game changers are companies like Planet Labs, Spire, Capella, ICEYE, Satellogic, Umbra Lab, HawkEye 360, GHGSat, and many more who have brought in changes to EO.

The newcomers are banking on small-satellite constellations that have medium to high resolution with almost daily revisits, which revolutionizes applications that require tracking rapid changes. Planet Labs was a leader in this area with its Dove and Skysat constellation of small satellites forming 43% of all the small optical EO satellites launched. Others are Black Sky Global and Satellogic. Radar imaging satellites in the small satellites category are manufactured by Capella Space, ICEYE, e-Geos, and Umbra Labs. Many go beyond optical and microwave imaging sensors by addressing RF signals from Space and Earth (HawkEye 360 and Spire) and greenhouse gases (GHGsat).

“Small satellite constellations are commoditizing the market for EO data through better economies of scale and competition. Market competition is driving down the cost of imagery and other EO data. These constellations are frequently capturing large swaths of coverage than were previously available,” says Brett Antonides, Vice President of Apps, Analytics and Visualization at Arturo. “This moves companies away from a tasking-based model and towards catalog subscription-based models. Reselling the same data to multiple customers drives down costs, which in turn opens up the market to potential new customers and use cases,” he adds.

The Arturo VP says that “in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors, companies are expanding the Electromagnetic (EM) spectrum available for analysis through hyperspectral imagery, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Radio Frequency (RF) geolocation, and infrared. The addition of new modalities and phenomenologies adds new depths for researchers and companies to mine for new, interesting analytics. They help remove many of the limitations imposed on traditional optical imagery, that is, cloud cover, nighttime, etc. Additionally, these newer phenomenologies allow for new techniques to analyze floods, change detection, vegetation growth, land subsidence, and soil disturbance, to name a few.”

The field of EO from satellites has grown steadily and is expected to rise from its present value of $2.9 billion to $25.273 billion by 2040, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg

Infrastructure for data utilization

Traditionally, government, industries, and academia have been using data from EO satellites for their work. Established EO data suppliers have marketed their data as a service and left it to the end users to analyze the data to extract actionable information from it. However, this model has undergone a sea change. Many Cloud providers like Amazon, Google and Azure now provide a gateway service that enables users to access data and analytics in a completely agnostic manner. Thus, instead of collecting data individually from different sources, preprocessing and then analyzing it using analytic tools sourced or developed in-house, end users can access the same data as ensembles from companies like Skywatch, or access data ensembles and analytics as a service from companies like Mundi and Cleos.

Antonides says, “Cloud computing and robotics are two of the most prominent 4IR technologies making real impacts; Cloud computing especially has dramatically lowered the costs associated with scaling up companies by largely removing the upfront capital costs around compute, networks, and storage.” “It’s my belief that leveraging the growing Ground Station as a service offering to rapidly offload the data to the Cloud offers significant advantages to getting satellite collected data to optimize Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence computer hardware,” he adds.

Earth Observation offers new opportunities to assess and address sustainability on a global scale

Intelligence from Earth Observation

Understanding the data and drawing conclusions is only the starting point. Converting the results into insights, which can help in planning and decision-making, is yet another step forward. Satellite Imagery is, as blogger Joe Morrison tweets, “…like salt. When combined with other data, it enhances it…”

Earth Observation data analytics needs to be supplemented with a variety of other application-specific data sources like data from remote sensors accessed through IoT, as well as crowd-sourced data, high velocity transactional data, and social media posts. Big Data analytics and Artificial Intelligence are used to integrate and analyze this wealth of data to generate analytics and insights specific to different sections of the economy, to help in optimum management of assets and resources and better governance. According to Antonides, “Analytics in a general sense increase efficiency by helping distill data to information, so that it is more digestible to the workforce to convert to knowledge, which can be leveraged to financial or political gain.”

Orbital Insights, Descartes Labs and Satsure provide these kinds of services. An interesting observation is that many of the satellite operators like Spire, HawkEye and Umbra Labs also offer similar services through their own satellite data and analytics to provide tailored solutions for specific sectors like maritime services, aviation services and land management.

“The US and foreign governments are the largest single source of demand for analytics; however, the biggest growth areas are in labor intensive industries. Arturo is capitalizing on this trend with the insurance industry,” says Antonides. He continues, “By leveraging the plethora of available imagery and remotely sensed data, Arturo is able to apply its Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence expertise to identify and assess dozens of attributes about a property in seconds.”

The future of EO lies in both large satellites and small satellites. The current scenario shows that big satellites are still needed for environmental monitoring

Impact of Earth Observation

“Satellite technology and Space exploration offer a potential new frontier of opportunities to assess and address climate change and sustainability on a global scale,” says Audrey Choi, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Marketing Officer. “In the coming years, these technologies could enable us to have a more powerful global view of climate data and environmental science. Those insights, in turn, can help enable a deeper integration of sustainability considerations into investment decisions.” This statement sums up the importance of Earth Observation, particularly in the current scenario where the recently released IPCC report shows that we are not just at the brink of disaster but well in it. Choi lists key application areas that include food security, greenhouse gas monitoring, management of utilities, renewable energy, and supply-demand optimization.

Derr says that defense and geo-intelligence (GEOINT) are their major sources of revenue. The other major applications are monitoring international disputes, ecological and climate change, natural disasters, encroachment, government accountability, monitoring critical assets, such as coastlines, natural resources, borders, destructive activity such as mining, and environmentally protected areas. The need is for all-weather and near real-time data and timely intelligence at affordable costs. “Finding theft, destruction, or sabotage weeks after the fact doesn’t do much to address the problem,” she emphasizes.

Space Situation Analysis and Protection

The proliferation of Space debris, the increasing complexity of Space operations, the emergence of large constellations, and the increased risks of collision and interference with the operation of Space objects may affect the long-term sustainability of Space activities. Addressing these developments and risks requires international cooperation by states and international intergovernmental organizations to avoid harm to the Space environment and the safety of space operations. The United Nations has formulated “Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities.”

NewSpace is heavily committed to constellations of low to medium orbit small-satellite systems. Similarly, new entrants like AWS’s Project Kuiper, SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb’s smallsat constellation, which address Internet services, have also opted for these orbits. The resultant congestion in these orbits increases the chance of collisions not only with each other but with other satellites and the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS had to make two emergency maneuvers in 2020 to avoid collisions.

Other satellite data sources

IoT devices are increasingly being used for in situ data acquisition. Accessing such data, particularly from remote areas, can be done using satellites. The data volumes are small and collection requirements are perhaps a few times a day. Such requirements can be met through small satellites in low earth orbits.

Astrocast is a global nanosatellite IoT network serving industries such as agriculture and livestock, oil, gas and mining, maritime, environmental, and connected vehicles, using IoT devices that communicate directly with satellites with a two-way communications service. The Astrocast constellation has 10 satellites in its operational network and anticipates another 10 satellites to be put into orbit by the end of the year, with an ultimate goal of 100 satellites by 2024.

Swarm Technologies, which was recently acquired by SpaceX, has the largest number of small satellites to orbit on the flight, as well as the smallest sized satellites. The company has over 100 SpaceBEEs in orbit and plans to have 180 in place for its full constellation.

Satellite Internet for Earth Observation data

Cloud services like AWS, Azure and Google depend on stable, low latency, broadband Internet connectivity that serves the globe. Satellite Internet services like Starlink from SpaceX, Kuiper from Amazon and OneWeb based in the UK will fill this need. Data suppliers, aggregators, analysts will be able to provide data and analysis agnostic services to end users over the Cloud. As Aravind Ravichandran, an independent Space Consultant and Market Analyst at TerraWatch Space, says, “The infrastructure has been laid, and it’s now time to start making use of the data enabled (by) these satellites to start generating a business case for these NewSpace EO startups to continue sending more satellites up.”

Crystal ball gazing

The future of EO lies in both large satellites and small satellites. The current scenario shows that big satellites are still needed for environmental monitoring. According to Derr, “NASA’s most recent National Academies’ Decadal Survey includes many important research questions that seek to identify how natural and anthropogenic changes affect ecosystems. Having multiple sensors gathering data at the same time may be the only way to get clear answers.” This requirement cannot be met by small satellite constellations as the problems of spatial and temporal data registration from different satellites in the same constellation and from different constellations will pose severe challenges. On the other hand, frequent revisit and fast data turnaround are invaluable features of small satellites.

In terms of sensors, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) has long promised to be a game changer, but massive satellite platforms were needed, which restricted their use. Today, new technologies have shrunk SAR sensors to enable them to be put on small satellites and the explosion of data from such satellites is clearly visible. The evolution of new sensors like RF detectors and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) detectors are adding a new dimension to EO.

Governments have been major consumers of EO data. Apart from their own satellites, they have awarded massive contracts to private players. However, analyzing data from the beginning requires large investments and will be possible only in government laboratories and in well-funded academia. As Derr says, “Defense departments will be the main drivers of geospatial analytics for the foreseeable future. Large countries with well-funded militaries can afford the best imagery, Artificial Intelligence, and the most skilled GEOINT analysts.” However, she goes on to add that “in general, non-governmental customers aren’t trained analysts, don’t want to hire trained analysts, don’t want to run analysis software, and don’t want to learn how to acquire satellite images. They just want answers.” This is where the future of EO analytics will lie.

According to her, “Freely available satellite imagery and open-source tools can be used by researchers, scientists, local governments, nonprofits, and smaller organizations to gain a level of situational awareness that they have not had previously. Developing this market with affordable analysis is important if EO companies want to diversify their customer base, so that their revenues and success aren’t completely controlled by politicians and military budgets.”

Another interesting aspect is that of citizen scientists. “The digital accessibility of so much information is leading to a rise in the number of citizen scientists who can collect data needed for research, and online open-source investigators that can use things like social media posts to identify what is happening, where, and who is doing it,” Derr says.

According to Antonides, “The key driver for the commercial sector is always return on investment. The boom in Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings that provide analytics, dashboards, and insights into targeted types of data, that is, HubSpot, Google Analytics, Loggly, etc., will continue to grow and diversify. I believe that companies like Databricks and other SaaS data platforms will continue to lower the barriers of entry to enable more companies to expand their use of analytics. In order to better utilize these SaaS data platforms, I think there is a growing niche for smaller Analytics as a Service startups that are able to help bootstrap other startups that are in the seed to B round stage of growth.”

Finally, where will the industry be in terms of Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI)? According to Antonides, “It probably goes without saying that ML/AI are going to continue their explosive growth. Combine attractive jobs with new techniques, libraries, and platforms that continue to enable new ideas and you have a recipe for growth. An area I believe you are going to see a large amount of growth in the next few years is edge-deployed ML/AI models.”

All said and done, the promise of EO is yet to be achieved in full measure. We are getting there but impediments remain. Antonides says that the limiting factors are cost, transparency, and trust. Many 4IR technologies are simply still too expensive to integrate into many consumer-level manufacturing and industry applications. Transparency and trust are related limitations. Many of these newer technologies rely on breakthroughs and science that are difficult to understand for many audiences. AI, in particular, invokes a broad set of connotations from the fantastical to the dystopian. “The rise of transparent AI, the ability to explain and understand the results from AI, highlights both the promise and challenges of this technology. Until these technologies are commonplace, or at least better understood, there will be hesitancy by many people to trust and openly rely on these technologies,” Antonides concludes.

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