Raising the profile of satellite data

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By David Livingstone, Market Engagement Manager, Satellite Applications Catapult

Satellite Applications Catapult Market Engagement Manager, David Livingstone, examines how satellite technology is playing a major role in driving benefits for the UK’s space and security industries.

Within 15 years, the UK Space sector could be generating annual revenues of £40 billion. This equates to 10 per cent of the global Space industry’s value, and represents just over four times the existing annual value of the sector.

As part of this ambitious growth plan, the Catapult is undertaking a series of activities – including engagement and research across multiple industries – which raises the profile of space and satellite data, and the potential benefits it can bring to national security and resilience applications.

Many operational authorities do not realise that satellite data can help their organisations, so we’re helping them identify and understand requirements, and subsequently helping develop and promote solutions.

Technology and Business Expertise

Our space technology experts – in various space capabilities including communications, Earth observation and navigation – are tasked with opening up market sectors to new technology. They and other business experts at the Catapult aim to assist in overcoming the supply chain failures which can occur when Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) bring their technologies to market.

It is obviously essential that they have a market-in-waiting for their technology, before we can help them find that starting position. Using our ever-expanding network of SMEs and research and development organisations – both in the commercial and academic sectors – we will help them find opportunities, working hard to fast-track product development and get it to market.

Using satellite data to help the Police

One example of how satellite data is being used in unorthodox areas is in the Catapult’s collaboration with UK police forces. Through techniques such as satellite imaging and communications, we have helped police forces with live investigations.

In one particular case, we helped police search a large area in North Yorkshire for signs of a body deposition site in a suspected murder case. Using commercial space assets, we scanned fields to identify abnormalities that could suggest the body burial site.

Through this innovative approach, police officials’ understanding and appreciation of space data has been transformed. Over the past two years, we’ve seen our relationship with police forces move from zero engagement to an environment in which officers now make open calls for support with live enquiries. As a result, the Catapult now creates new techniques and processes that can help the police in fighting crime.

Extending the benefits from land to sea

And it’s not just on land that we are seeing the benefits of using satellite data to fight crime; we’re working hard with various partners in the maritime sector to tackle criminal activity at sea, such as illegal fishing. Longer term potential exists to assist in tackling piracy, people trafficking and countering the international narcotics trade. Some aspects of these activities can be tracked through space observation – using satellite monitoring of ships’ beacons and identifying vessels, by optical means, to identify whether they are operating without permission or in patterns suggesting illicit behaviour.

This includes working with The Pew Charitable Trusts with whom we have developed ground-breaking near real-time technology – using multiple sources of live satellite tracking data – that will help authorities monitor, detect and respond to illegal fishing activity across the world’s oceans. We are also set to embark on a five-year project to monitor the ocean territory around the Pitcairn Islands (a UK Overseas Territory), recently earmarked as a protected marine reserve.

Supporting Critical National Infrastructure

Back in the UK, the Catapult is using satellite data to strengthen the security and resilience of various parts of the critical national infrastructure (CNI). To date, this has included providing the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow with high resolution space imagery – featuring resolution down to 50cm per pixel – in order to plan emergency evacuation and live event routes. Such a resolution enables operators to identify large groups of people, access routes, and large fencing, as well as differentiate between vehicles such as a car and a lorry.

Meanwhile, we are also in discussion with a major energy provider to undertake a feasibility programme focusing on the protection of their installations’ coolant systems from blockage by invasive species. Due to overfishing, the ecological balance of the oceans has shifted, causing an epidemic of jellyfish. Large swarms can become drawn into the intakes of cooling systems in energy installations and desalination plants, which can results in the plants having to shut down.

To address this scenario, the Catapult has established a partnership to research the tracking swarms of jellyfish from space, giving power plants advance warning that will allow the timely shutdown or other measures to be taken. In addition to the energy provider, the programme is engaging several SMEs based at the Catapult in Harwell, along with a major supermarket chain whose stocks of farmed salmon are also threatened by the increased threat of jellyfish attack.

This programme clearly demonstrates our unique ability to bring together several key partners to provide a collaborative solution addressing a defined challenge. Engaging the SMEs, in particular, to develop their space technology and apply it to identifiable needs is one of our main goals, as we look to help them overcome traditional critical failures in the productisation and commercialisation of their products, and contribute further to the growth of the British economy.