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Plenty of room for Irish companies in the digital space race

Enterprise Ireland to help Irish firms to boost the value of contracts in space-related activities

The European Investment Bank has forecast the global commercial space industry to grow to about €2.3 trillion by 2030. Ireland’s National Space Strategy for Enterprise aims to claim a slice of this by doubling the space-related revenue and employment in space-active Irish companies by 2025.

This will see Enterprise Ireland helping 100 Irish companies to benefit from engagement with the European Space Agency (ESA) and a doubling in the value of contracts won through the EU Horizon programmes in space-related activities. The overall objective, according to Enterprise Ireland programme manager Conor Sheehan, is to develop a sustainable Earth observation services sector based on advanced data analytics capability.

Ireland has access to data from the world’s most advanced constellation of Earth observation satellites through its membership of the ESA and EUMETSAT – the European operational satellite agency for monitoring weather, climate and the environment from space. The task now is to turn that data into commercially-usable information.

“At the moment it is mainly institutional users like insurance companies and so on who are making commercial use of the data,” says Sheehan. “There are many potential uses of the data, including the monitoring of crop health and water quality. We are about to put out a call for commercial-use case proposals from companies working in conjunction with public sector bodies.”

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ESA contract

Irish companies are already doing quite well in this digital space race, according to Sheehan. Dublin-based geoscience company Icon Group has won an ESA contract to develop the Danube Environmental Risk Assessment Platform. The company will develop new space imaging technology to work along with cloud-based applications to detect, monitor, analyse and characterise the sources of environmental problems affecting 20 EU member states.

"Icon is leading a consortium of partners from around Europe on this project," says Sheehan. "It's a major coup for Ireland. Icon has also won the contract to develop a land-monitoring tool for the EU. It will use satellite data to contribute to the understanding of what's happening in agriculture."

The new tool could facilitate automated payments under the Common Agricultural Policy.

Another Irish company making a name for itself in this area is IoT specialist Davra.

“The firm has won a contract to monitor mine tailings storage facilities,” says Sheehan. “These are reserves of contaminated waters from mining. There have been instances where people have died as a result of land poisoning when the walls break.”

The Davra system combines ground sensors with satellite data to monitor storage facilities in remote locations. Specialists can evaluate the information at a much lower cost than visiting each site.

Another surface-to-space combination has been developed by Techworks Marine. The company’s CoastEye Mini-Buoy contains a number of sensors and can easily be deployed in coastal environments for a few months at a time to monitor the marine environment. Merging the Mini-Buoy results with satellite data can deliver powerful insights.

“You can get a very accurate picture of what is happening at sea,” says Sheehan. “It can be used to spot algal blooms before they hit aquaculture facilities and allow action to be taken in advance.”

Wave heights

Another potential application relates to the positioning and maintenance of offshore wind farms. Data on wave heights and wind can assist in choosing the best location for the wind farms as well as providing an early warning system for weather events which would require the turbines to be switched off.

Back on land, Treemetrics captures and analyses forestry data from satellites to enable forest owners and managers to maximise sustainable production and profitability.

“The technology can help forestry owners to maximise yield, tackle illegal logging and deal with forest fires. Forests are so dense that it is very difficult to spot a fire in its early stages, but it can be seen from space. The company is also looking at ways of measuring forests’ performance as carbon sinks and measuring the amount of carbon captured.”

Sheehan hopes the call for proposals will see a new wave of Irish companies joining these early pioneers.

“Earth observation data is a bit like nanotechnology, it’s everything and nothing until you develop commercial-use cases for it. We will launch the call in the next few months, and hope to get industry to partner with pubic sector agencies to demonstrate commercial uses for the data. This is a really exciting area and Ireland is well positioned to be at the forefront of it.”