Sep 19, 2014

EURISY: Sentinels & SMEs: threats and opportunities

Estimated Article Reading Time: 5 min.

Dr. Gediminas Vaitkus is the owner of Geomatrix UAB, a small Lithuanian company that has successfully participated in the development of Copernicus core services. It specialises in automated geospatial data processing. Now that the Sentinels are being launched, we asked Dr. Vaitkus about his point of view on the prospects the Sentinels bring for small and medium businesses.

Eurisy (EY): What are the main threats European SMEs are confronted with when it comes to making commercially viable geo-information products from Sentinel data?

Dr. G. Vaitkus (GV): I would like to call out three of them, though of course the situation is more complex than a 3-bullet point list.

  • 1. Stakeholder interests and resistance to changing from “traditional” (human photo-interpreted) geo-information products: Although the efficiency, objectivity, frequency and thematic variety of Copernicus products and services cause no doubts, the traditional mapping methods hold strong positions on an institutional level, with institutional users or even large service providers who are in a position of national monopoly. Annual expenses of the public sector for mapping products and services are certainly large enough for the traditional mapping lobbyists to defend their “economic interests”.
  • 2. European and national legislation and procurement policies are not in line with the most recent technological developments related to Copernicus. In many European countries legislation makes topographic mapping compulsory, focusing national funding on established priorities and methods, which leaves little room for innovation. This is actually the main problem for Copernicus service providers, more than technological competition with traditional mapping methods. Legislators do not seem to be in tune with those in charge of investing European money in innovative mapping methods, like those based on the use of satellite imagery. You would think that these questions of legislation and procurement policies should have preceded the implementation of Copernicus, but nowadays that seems to be an after-thought.
  • 3. Low accessibility of high quality multi-spectral imagery for the European service providers. This is a complex problem, including insufficient spatial resolution and spectral parameters of the imagery publicly available for the GMES/Copernicus initial operations, low revisit frequency (problems with cloud cover), high cost of very high resolution imagery (almost the same as aerial photos), etc. This problem is even worsened by on-line global imaging services like Google or Bing, which provide visualisations derived from very high resolution imagery for the general public globally and for free. So the result is that (1) the mainstream users have an extremely “populist” understanding of what EO technology really is and what information it can provide, at the same time being confident that they already have unlimited and free access to the best available EO technologies and (2) EO industry has serious problems trying to satisfy the expectations of the European (or national) institutional users in terms of high quality EO products and services with the EO data available for the real production. I do hope that Sentinel 2 will at least partially solve the latter problem, but the education of the general public still remains a serious issue for the Copernicus community at all levels.

EY: What about the bright side?

GV: There are a few reasons to remain hopeful.

  • 1. European SME capacity building. During the last years some European companies have indeed developed highly competitive technological capacities for EO services. And — surprisingly — the constraints of the European EO market (weak user community, low budgets, changing specifications, poor imagery, problems with many national projections, etc.), have actually pushed innovation and reinforced the competitiveness of European EO service providers on the global market! 5 years ago the FP7 GMES projects raised very ambitious (at that time) objectives to reduce the land-cover production costs by 20% compared to CORINE Land Cover production based on manual photo-interpretation, or even reduce the production cost down to 1-2 Euro/sq.km for ~10 “core” land cover classes. However, the actual production of GIO-Land layers was done for just a few cents/sq.km per layer — several times cheaper than the original expectations. Despite all the semantic issues, delays, diversity of national projections, inconsistency of EO imagery and other problems, the pan-European production was completed successfully by a collaborative effort of a large group of European companies, coordinated by the European Environment Agency. This achievement gives strong evidence of the competitiveness of the European EO industry and competences of public agencies.

  • 2. The promising prospect of access to global markets. Without exaggeration, European Copernicus service providers have indeed developed a capacity for serious competition on a global market. And, to be honest, the main reason why we (service providers) are so keen to finally have European EO imaging capacity (Sentinels) operating in full power is not because we expect a considerable boost of business opportunities in our own countries, but because we hope that EC will finally develop a political will to start acting as a global player on climate change, deforestation, desertification, water resources, food security and many other issues by launching large scale operational mapping and land/ocean monitoring services on a global scale, like US, Japan, China and other countries. Europe has no problem with innovation, technological capacity or even funding – I believe that with Copernicus services our main problem is lack of political will and coordination… But hopefully that is about to change.

EY: How representative do you think your view is of how SMEs in general perceive Copernicus’ opportunities?

GV: I’m not sure. My point of view – as one of a former scientist and current CEO of a micro-company competing for business in the field of EO services – is probably a pragmatic, business-like approach to the Copernicus programme. I do realise that on a European level this has been a very ambitious project on a larger time-scale than the one I consider, as a small business owner. Long preparation for the Copernicus operational phase through RTD projects demanded a considerable amount of investment and human resources from large EO service providers, but the overall level of GMES initial operations funding apparently didn’t meet expectations of the European EO industry. On the other hand, SMEs are operating on considerably lower level of expenses, therefore long-term Copernicus services and national downstreams provide attractive business opportunities for micro-companies and SMEs.

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