Earth observation platform set to ‘disrupt’ Irish industry

Consortium looking to make satellite data available and accessible to farmers and firms

As we sleep, work or play, thousands of satellites overhead are busy gathering data on the Earth below. A University College Dublin-led research consortium is aiming to make it easier for non-specialists to access this Earth observation (EO) data and to establish Ireland as a leader in the EO-based industry.

The amount of EO data available to Ireland is growing fast as a result of our membership in European organisations that deploy satellites to gather such data, like the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites and the European Space Agency.

The growth in EO data has been staggering, with some 5,000 satellites launched worldwide by governments and private industry. The number has increased fivefold in the last decade. The advent of cheaper launch systems and smaller nanosats and CubeSats will accelerate the trend.

There are lots of data but it’s hard to find, says Prof Michela Bertolotto, of the UCD school of computer science, who is the head of an academic-industry consortium aiming to change this.

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“It’s difficult to find the relevant data because the amount of available data is huge and often stored in different places,” she says. “Finding the relevant data is already a challenge in itself; for non-specialist users, it is a big barrier.”

The Creating an Architecture for Manipulating Earth Observation Data (Cameo) consortium has €9 million (€5.9 million from Enterprise Ireland and the rest from industry) in funding to make it easier for non-specialists in government, Irish SMEs and industry here to make full use of EO data.

Cameo emerged out of the National Space Strategy for Ireland, published in 2019, which called for a national, user-friendly EO data platform for Ireland to be set up that would have a “disruptive” impact on many industries, including those closely linked to climate, marine and agriculture.

Some Irish government bodies and SMEs are already exploiting EO data but the majority are not. The potential is not being realised because data is hard to find and, even when it is it’s not yet available in a user-friendly format.

UCD is a logical place for Cameo to be based given it is a hub for Irish space-related research. There is the UCD Centre for Space Research, which is developing Ireland’s first home-grown satellite EIRSAT-1, while many researchers on campus are using EO data.

Cameo is centred in the school of computer science but its wide relevance is illustrated by the fact that it involves UCD researchers in architecture, planning, environmental science, biosystems, food engineering and electronic engineering. It also comprises companies using EO data here such as Treemetrics, TechWorks Marine and Dell Technologies.

“There are a number of companies that are already using Earth observation data in Ireland, but the sector is just starting,” says Bertolotto. “The potential is huge, and the sector is going to grow very rapidly. The idea was to develop a platform that would ‘disrupt’ the sector and put Ireland on the (EO) map.”

Prof Nick Holden, of UCD’s school of biosystems and food engineering, is developing case studies where the findings from Cameo are applied for the benefit of the agriculture and marine sectors. The project, he says, will also help to train scientists in use of EO data.

“Earth observation is now at the heart of precision agriculture, catchment management, emissions control, site location planning, sustainability assessment, supply chain logistics and value chain design,” says Holden.

“If we take your example of a farmer, the question is how do we get them very quickly to the data that they want, and is useful to them, without a load of menus, options, and selection boxes”

“The ability to find and use Earth observation data as part of the scientific design of solutions to major challenges of food supply and security, environmental impact and sustainability will require that biosystems engineers can understand, access and use Earth observation data,” he says.

Some Government agencies in Ireland — notably the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ordnance Survey of Ireland — have started to gather EO data. A central aim of Cameo is to bring all the data being collected here into one single national repository.

“They have their own data sets,” says Bertolotto. “But there is no common platform or entry that will direct you to the different places where data sets are stored. SMEs might not have the experience or realise the potential of the data out there to help them with their problems or in their day-to-day business.”

There are many ways EO data can be applied to industry. Techworks Marine, a member of Cameo, is using it to monitor water quality, while Treemetrics, another partner, is using it to monitor forests and interact with forestry applications. It is also used for disaster relief, as well as flood and erosion monitoring.

At a global level,the United Nations is now using EO data in combination with machine learning to identify — using satellite imagery — areas of cities that are slums and to map them. This examines rooftop textures, road layouts and building density.

The big barrier to the usage of existing data is the lack of ease of use on existing platforms. The Cameo group is working to develop ways for different types of non-specialists to access what they need. “If we take your example of a farmer, the question is how do we get them very quickly to the data that they want, and is useful to them, without a load of menus, options and selection boxes,” says Bertolotto.

“We want to quickly get them the data on their farm [and] show them what they need to know through a really simple to use interface. One area that we’re looking at is natural language processing. For example, the farmer, or end-user, could type in what they are interested in, in natural text, and the system could pull out and recommend data through the data discovery platform.”

Cameo is also looking at ways to integrate information gathered on the ground by, for example, farmers, with satellite data. “The idea is to have a cloud-based platform; there isn’t one in Ireland.”

The quality of EO data is another issue, particularly in Ireland where there is a lot of cloud cover. This means that images taken by the satellite on an overcast Irish day may or may not fit their intended purpose, depending on how the data is going to be used.

“We are looking at addressing this and creating metrics to help people decide how to use data based on this cloud cover,” says Bertolotto. “We are working with SMEs to determine what level of quality they need in their sector, because they may not need perfectly clear images to do their analysis and processing.”

The consortium also wants to help people develop their own microservices from the new platform. This might involve taking EO data from the platform, doing something with it, and providing it as a commercial service for someone else.

The ultimate goal of Cameo is to establish an economically sustainable EO data-based sector in Ireland and to establish the State as an international leader in the application of this data.

“The idea is not to just cater for the Irish market, but to have international engagement,” says Bertolotto. “This is the first big project in the area of EO, but I think the Government certainly has bigger plans for this sector.”