INFORMATION from satellites is informing the decision making of government departments and the system is to be extended to benefit the African continent.
Satellite image data is used for a host of societal and economic applications, including agriculture and food security, water quality management, urban planning, controlling the spread of disease, environmental monitoring and natural disaster relief.
Speaking at the commencement of the 10th International Conference of the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said an African space policy and strategy is being developed by the African Union commission through the African Ministers Council on Science and Technology.
“We believe that Africa’s turn has come,” said Ms Pandor. “We must increase investments and awareness of the use of space for decision making processes.
“We have to stimulate an African dialogue for the use of space in development, the use of space for building African capacity in science and technology, and the use of space for promoting continental co-ordination of space activities.”
Ms Pandor said SA’s national space strategy and earth observation “serve a number of government departments and help them to fulfil their respective mandates through the provision of timely and relevant data”.
The South African National Space Agency (Sansa) was established in 2010, but it is not the only African space agency, the others being in Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt.
Even though the buy-in to develop this technology is high, Ms Pandor said cost benefits are realised through its application.
“The extraordinary social and economic benefits we see can be achieved at a cost-effective level for our country.”
A relatively small percentage of global gross domestic product is spent in the area of space technology — about 0.5%. But the space economy brought in $256.2bn in 2013 through consumer services.
“We are a huge consumer and purchaser of satellite data … and we need to develop our capabilities to reduce our expenditure in that area,” said Ms Pandor.
Sansa earth observation senior scientist Nicky Knox said satellite imagery can provide the data that allows government to report accurately on how well a sector such as agriculture is doing in a particular province, but can also provide farmers with more detailed imagery of their crop health so they can “use better applications to fertilise and irrigate their land to cut costs”.
“Africa is the breadbasket of the world,” said University of Cape Town electrical engineering professor Michael Inggs.
“Precision agriculture is about producing food efficiently, and for that you need information. Inputs from space can predict the right time to plant your crop and when to harvest it. Billions can be saved by buying ahead and making informed decisions,” said Prof Inggs.
Dr Knox said earth observation is also supporting various other sectors. One is the urban environment, where determining changes in urban infrastructure can be important for companies, such as Eskom’s decision on how best to roll out power to new consumers.
Imagery can also be used in conducting impact assessments on the environment when the Department of Transport needs to build new roads across the country. The mining sector also uses satellite imagery to monitor associated surface minerals that can inform decisions to mine in a particular area.
“We need to have global measurements in place to understand this planet. The technologies of remote sensing and earth observation have many applications, particularly for societal benefits,” said National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief of earth sciences Shahid Habib.