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Data from Satellites Shed Light on Farming Insurance and Piracy

Among the many offices and groups the Technology Strategy Board established to create growth, the Satellite Applications Catapult’s (SAC) Oxfordshire office houses a screen that displays yet another project (one to help the environment) which looks into boats that turn off the AIS, or Automatic Identification System, prior to illegal fishing. They turn off their AIS thinking they won’t be identified. A satellite image can check where a fisherman’s boat goes. In the future, the information may be given to government bodies when someone suspects something illegal.

The SAC tries to let businesses know what kind of information is possible to retrieve from satellites and help them understand how they can profit from such businesses. According to the head of trading, Alan Cox, enlightening businesses will boost Britain’s position in the world as country utilizing satellite data.

In a similar way, the Milton Keynes council will find illegal activity by looking at Satellite data starting this September. First, satellites capture an image of a community four times a year. Software analyzes this photo and highlights anything that changed. Having entered information on planned changes, the software will be able to distinguish between planned changes and unplanned changes. Permitted developments are colored blue and any real developments are colored orange. If there is any location where orange shows up by itself, an investigation occurs. This is a much better system than the old system where only five people were in charge of investigating violations in 340 km squared area. So few people would have to rely on people calling in and reporting a possible violation.

“One of the reasons the catapults have been set up is this criticism of the UK by the UK that we are brilliant at innovation but terrible at commercializing it – we lose the idea or give the idea away. So part of this is taking existing technology, existing capability, and talking to customers with real-world problems,” Cox said. “The issue is that, if we do nothing, then we will be buying Chinese [and] Indian applications rather than at least having a share of the market.”

At present, satellites can magnify 50 centimeters to the size of a pixel. This makes a house or a car easy to recognize. A company called Geospatial Insight detects how much damage is caused by a flood to help insurance companies. In a similar way, they are working on software to estimate crop yields.

Managing director Dave Fox stated that things that were impossible a couple of years ago are no very doable because of satellite technology.

“Five years ago, there were probably 10 to 15 useful satellites that you could apply into this type of market,” he said. “The problem was that a satellite might only come over a particular spot every 26 days or every 30 days. It was very hard to get the [repetition] to deliver a reliable service. There are probably now 120 useful satellites as of today and this year it is probably going to be nearer 200.”

The 20-person company AgSpace, based in Swindon, now uses satellite photos to help farmers asses their crops’ health. Farms big and small – from 10,000 to 200 acres – have the company analyzing the images for quality of the plants, soil type and other useful info. This way, a farmer can better plan their farm.

“What used to take two, three, four years in trials with academics,”  director Vincent Gillingham said, “we can now look at the data and do in hours.”

Oxfordshire company WeatherSafe will use satellite data to tell coffee farmers about the health of their crops, the absorption of the soil, and other useful information that will help them manage their farms.

Such an approach to farm management could be used for all kinds of agriculture, according to director Francesco Liucci. Soon, many more small satellites may be employed to make the expense of such data collection much less.  More satellites and more competition will lower the price.

An AgSpace customer would pay £5-10 for every hectare (varying based on how much data they ordered). Miltion Keynes pays £100,000 annually for interpretation of satellite data, Cox said.

One more way satellites imagery will be useful is in disaster relief. A satellites called Sentinel-1A is the first out of many that will be used for European Space Agency’s Copernicus Earth project of observation. It was launched April 3rd. When a disaster occurs, such as an oil spill, Sentinel-1A will be employed to photograph the area. It was used already during flooding of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These photos will be given at no expense.

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