Nov 25, 2015

Space information the final frontier for big data era

(by Roland Moore-Colyer, 25 Nov 2015) Data from space will feed the big data trend as more companies find uses for information and images collected by satellites.

Estimated Article Reading Time: 4 min.

This ‘space data’ is normally associated with research carried out by national space agencies and academic institutions but is now increasing being used by firms to assess everything from flooding risks to pipeline deployments in remote and challenging environments.

Tim Just, head of space at the UK government’s Innovate UK, told V3 that a shift over the past five years has seen more private companies getting involved in launching satellites to deliver services around the world.

One high-profile example is Facebook’s Internet.org project that aims to beam internet access to areas of the world that lack broadband access via drones and satellites.

“We’re going through what some people call the third wave of space. There’s a real revolution moving away from institutional markets to private markets,” said Just.

“We’ve also seen a lot of interest in imagery from satellites, called Earth observational data, which was predominately for the scientific community. Google Earth turned that on its head, and [helped introduce] the idea that you can monitor and interpret a lot of information from space.”

As a result there is now a lot more space data being produced. However, Just explained that it takes technical skill and knowledge to put this to use, which has led to companies specialising in space data to act as a middle ground between private and institutional data sources and build services and use cases around them.

“There is a latent market for the institutional programme, and there’s a big EU mission called Copernicus that’s expected to create a huge explosion in the amount of data. But we also have all these private companies providing purely commercial data which is of a different quality but has a higher refresh rate,” he said.

This is an area in which digital-savvy startups can excel and the UK is keen to ensure it is at the frontier of this revolution. The government recently supported seven British startups on a recent trip to the US to showcase how data from satellites can change the world by facilitating access to space data.

The Space Mission 2.0 trip was the second of its kind and was supported by Innovate UK, which hosted five of the startups, while the UK Science and Innovation Network and the Satellite Applications Catapult jointly sponsored the other two.

The showcase took place at the SpaceCom Expo in Houston, Texas, the home of NASA, and the UK delegation demonstrated how Earth observation, space images and analytics can be used to improve the way people and organisations work.

“The US is very much seen as a leader in this area. A lot of the data source companies are based there, largely due to access to finance in California and the technical base that NASA created,” said Just.

The mission included Terrabotics, which uses earth observation imagery to support big industries engaged in complex operations in remote and challenging environments, for example helping companies assess the risk of operating in areas with harsh weather conditions, plan pipeline deployments or gauge flooding risks.

Another was Rezatec Ltd which uses analytics on earth observation data to provide environmental information that can be used by farmers to improve crop yields, and water companies to assess the risk of pollution in specific areas.

The other startups comprised of Ecometrica, a firm that turns earth observation data into critical business information, and brings it all together in a single platform, space data access company Blue Skies Space Ltd, satellite data online market place Geocento Limited, Gyana, which uses advanced mathematics and machine learning to harness big data for use in everyday life, and Oxford Space Systems, which aims to become a major supplier of deployable space structures.

The showcases and subsequent pitches to US companies were designed to connect US space firms and UK startups to encourage investment and partnerships, but Just explained that it was also a way for the startups to see how they can be of value on the global stage.

“The exercise for the companies is to help them understand that actually they’re quite advanced in their thinking,” he said.

“They are almost unique in having this developed business that’s actually here to serve these proposed markets and concepts, and having that ready to go on that basis is quite a long way from the US tech companies that are very used to working with NASA.

“It’s more than just a simple introductory process. It’s helping them develop a market introductory strategy and test it very quickly with a large number of people.”

The startups all emerged with as yet unspecified contacts and potential partnerships, and Space Mission 2.0 can be viewed as a success and could certainly extend the UK’s reach into the global space data arena.

Just predicted that the use of space data will grow to become just another source of information under the big data umbrella.

“I think we’ll probably see it explode as a sector and one of the challenges is maintaining an identity for that as a space technology,” he said.

“This becomes just another data source that people fit into the big data story. So that will be absorbed and become a natural part of society. But it’s important to remember the origin of that data and give people access to expertise to use that data.”

The need for expertise and technologies to put space data to use resulted in the creation of the Satellite Applications Catapult, an Innovate UK initiative that looks to define use cases and support the development of applications and services revolving around space data.

The Satellite Applications Catapult joins other similar centres across the UK, notably the Digital Catapult in London.

Sifting through space data can even be used in the hunt for alien communications.

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