Apr 19, 2016

An Industrial Perspective on Copernicus

By Geoff Sawyer, Secretary General of the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC)
© Copernicus Newsletter

Estimated Article Reading Time: 4 min.

We are entering a new era of Earth Observation. The European flagship programme Copernicus, marked by the recent launch of the Sentinel-1 and -2 satellites is finally becoming reality and the launch of many new satellite constellations by start-up companies promise to deliver high quality data in abundance. The exponential increase in computing power, communications bandwidth and ultra-low-cost storage volume is opening new possibilities for access to and processing of image data. Plus the growing movement of public “open data” is changing the way we look at the world and offering tremendous opportunities to combine data-sets in different ways.

In Europe, we have a world-class industry which according to the latest EARSC survey is growing at 8-10% per annum and delivering €900m of revenues and nearly 7000 expert jobs. We also have an excellent science base and a rich heritage of EO science and technology. Yet we are not yet organised to succeed. These same assets turn into weaknesses when we consider that the sector is composed of over 500 companies 95% of which have less than 50 employees and 65% having less than 10. Moreover, they are distributed throughout Europe and hence are two small to be effective in developing and entering new markets globally. The diversity of skills and knowledge is a true asset; the fragmentation and size of each is not.

In this respect, as a European flagship programme, Copernicus promises a great deal. With every EU28 Member State involved plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, it should help overcome the fragmentation by building on local strengths and encouraging partnerships across the EU. The €7b investment already made by Europe’s governments is designed to leave European decision-makers non-dependent on strategic geospatial information coming from anywhere in the world such as for climate change negotiations, for security or humanitarian operations and for peacekeeping. But whilst the focus has been on driving the value for the public sector, the ability to exploit the public investment to drive economic benefit and jobs has not been considered with the same priority until recently. In consequence, the EO services companies are finding it difficult to be part of the programme. EARSC has identified in the past a number of steps which should be taken but only now are these receiving serious consideration.

Our concerns range from the ability of companies anywhere in Europe to access data, to involvement in the delivery of the Copernicus Services and the ability to capitalise on R&D investments. One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is to understand the boundary between the activities of the private and public sectors and its impact on fair competition which is a condition precedent to the willingness of companies to invest in developing new services. If some of these barriers can be brought down, Copernicus should be an excellent lever to drive growth in the sector over the next years.

For some time EARSC has called for a better consultation with industry and in particular to be formally recognised as a key stakeholder in the Copernicus programme. We have also made many recommendations in several position papers and have initiated an action with all the European Entrusted Entities (EEE’s) which have delegated responsibility to deliver the Copernicus Services to develop closer ties and see where an effective partnership can be developed. We are optimistic that these actions can bring success, and welcome the positive signals received from the European Commission in that respect

One key step needed is to make the Sentinel data and Copernicus products available to be integrated with data and products coming from the private sector (including data from missions such as Pleiades, TerraSAR-X, Cosmo, Rapideye and Deimos). We should like to see platform services developed through which all types of data can be accessed and where new innovative products and services can be generated.

For this reason, EARSC is creating a Marketplace Alliance for EO Services an e-commerce platform which will enable customers to find suppliers and companies to find business. The Marketplace Alliance will define the requirements and operate the service. It would not do business directly but would act on behalf of all users of the Marketplace by negotiating terms, assembling market information and promoting the Marketplace as the best location to find services. The Alliance could also represent the downstream industry on regulatory matters and for the standardisation of products and services.

But the industry cannot succeed alone. From the industry survey, over 50% of the market today is for governmental customers and we do not anticipate that this will change too much over the coming years. With such a strong public interest, a partnership approach is needed and we aim to establish this with the major public stakeholders; the EC, ESA and EUMETSAT.

The EO Services Marketplace could in theory be built upon the IT platforms offered by Google, Amazon and others and indeed many companies will take that opportunity. Nevertheless, we believe that a European platform should be established, providing an alternative where the business risk is less and companies will be able to build sound enterprises. We are ready to work with any provider of platform services to meet our goal as long as competition is ensured at every level giving all players access to the market as well as an environment where they can be confident of long-term support. EARSC will take a lead to establish the Marketplace Alliance with the first step to examine the legal, commercial and governance issues. Our goal is to have the Alliance in place and the Marketplace operational before the end of 2016. The initiative is open to everyone!