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Using Satellite Technology to Monitor Disused Coal Tips

Anastasia Bolton
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In September 2021, the Satellite Applications Catapult began working with the Coal Authority, on behalf of the Welsh Government, on using Earth Observation (EO) data to monitor and assess disused coal tips in South Wales.

The Welsh Government is funding the Coal Tips Monitoring Pilot Project as part of a series of technology trials for its Coal Tip Safety programme. The pilot project is aiming to create an evidence base to enable informed decision making on long-term satellite-enabled services for monitoring of disused coal tips. The Catapult has been selected for this project by The Coal Authority based on its expertise in the space sector and previous work in the mining sector.

The purpose of the pilot project is to evaluate whether Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data can be used to monitor potential ground movement on disused coal tips.  Sensors from the Sentinel-1 Copernicus mission can measure millimetre movements on Earth within a small surface area. Although this data has been available since 2014, it is only recently that it has begun to be used for landslip monitoring. As a world-leading Earth Observation specialist, the Catapult has been using EO data for the benefit of the extractive industries and governments facing climate-related issues since its inception.

That is why it has been tasked with forming and leading a multi-skilled consortium of EO experts. The Catapult has selected three companies with expertise in using SAR data – CGG, Terra Motion and SatSense – to analyse and interpret satellite data on disused coal tips using different technical approaches. The results will be compared, combined, and selected by the Catapult based on the effectiveness and potential to pre-empt any potential environmental hazards.

The pilot will analyse disused coal tips identified by the Welsh Government and the Coal Authority across three phases.

  • In phase one, soil subsidence (sinking) or uplift (rising) will be monitored as crucial indicators for potential risks at the tip sites, using three years of surface displacement estimation data.
  • Phase two will draw on experience from previous Catapult projects using corner reflectors (essentially concrete blocks which improve the accuracy of the satellite sensor measurements) to determine whether monitoring can be improved. Up to 20 corner reflectors will be installed on a disused coal tip and the satellite data will be analysed 8-10 months later to understand the impact of installing the reflectors.
  • Finally, in phase three, the Catapult will research and evaluate the use of commercial space data at disused coal tips to understand the benefits this could bring in relation to public safety and coal tip management.

The Satellite Applications Catapult, the Coal Authority and the Welsh Government are committed to finding innovative solutions to improve communities and environments. This pilot project will assess innovations in satellite data with the aim of understanding disused coal tips better, which could improve the ability to target improvements to specific sites. In turn this would reduce the risk to public safety in the surrounding communities and reduce public spending.

Get In Touch

Do you want to find out more about this project? Get in touch with the Extractives Industries Team (Extractives@sa.catapult.org.uk) at the Satellite Applications Catapult.