The sky is the limit. Well, it’s not – and the space industry is the first to prove that statement wrong. But when it comes to Earth observation (EO), we have recently witnessed a boom that is pushing existing systems to their limits. More and more applications are being developed that require more accurate and reliable data at lower cost. Our ideas and visions for the future are about to exceed the systems currently available to achieve them. Despite, or perhaps because of, increased research in EO, the field is being called to action: it must take some important steps to bridge the gap between current capabilities and future needs. This article explores the future of EO, from improved responsiveness to the development of new technologies and institutional support.
Democratizing Earth Observation: Two Scenarios
The human desire to explore and understand our planet at an increasingly detailed level is insatiable, and the EO market has relentlessly sought to evolve in order to increase the quality of data and the curiosity of its customers. A key moment in the quest to not only satisfy, but more importantly, stimulate the curiosity of a wider, i.e. non-institutional, audience was the launch of Google Earth in 2005; a moment that has been described by some as a breakthrough in the field. From this very launch, end users, businesses and institutions around the world were allowed not only to access but soon to develop applications and services based on EO imagery (see Denis, G.; Claverie, A. et al. 2017). Looking to the future, however, there are two developments that both build on this technological breakthrough, offering new opportunities but also raising some ethical questions.
The first development we address here as a key driver for the developments proposed within Domino-E is the cost of EO imagery. While most professional providers, from Google to Maxar to Airbus, agree that satellite data should become more affordable and accessible to the average end-user, there are certain technological limitations that keep the actual cost at a high level. How do such costs fit in with open data policies and free access to data? What about some users who build on older or less detailed and therefore more affordable data? Bearing in mind that ‘democratising access to specific data’ is certainly a key business strategy to promote other, more specific products and services, the coming years will certainly bring new business models and strategies to monetize differently labelled data. Think of streaming subscriptions and premium access to EO catalogues – a reality with room for improvement. Whatever the approach, making EO technology and imagery available to researchers, policy makers, businesses and innovators has already proven to stimulate significant innovation and development.
The second development we see in the evolution of the EO market is the question of who will collaborate on large scale projects, pooling resources and expertise to tackle complex scientific questions. More polemically, does the tweet from the founder of Terrawatchspace calling for either horizontal or vertical consolidation of the EO market point to the future of EO ecosystems? There are now both space agencies and SMEs active in the EO market. Some of these SMEs have merged or been acquired by larger players, while others have managed to build their own base and become self-sufficient. There are also an increasing number of smaller countries with traditionally less developed space and EO industries that now have the opportunity to get involved. All of this, the availability of new products and services, the access to new technologies, is certainly triggering new policies. While we’ve seen the role that individual rights have played over the last few decades, there are other issues that need to be addressed that relate to ownership and access to EO data and EO technology, as well as the responsible use of that data. These are obvious questions that arise with the democratisation of any new technology – not only for EO, and not only at the national level
Breakthroughs in hardware and software
Let’s start with the hardware: the ground system and satellite constellations. According to Euroconsult, which provides strategic guidance to space stakeholders, the decade from 2022 to 2031 will see a “fourfold increase in the number of satellites, driven by commercial constellations.” (Euroconsult, 2022).
Euroconsult claims that 2,500 satellites will be launched each year during this period. While the majority of these satellites are targeted at broadband communications, the number of EO constellations is also expected to increase. More frequent launches will also be made possible by the development of satellite technology and hardware, a process that is already underway. Satellites will also become better equipped, more flexible, modular and remotely repairable. Airbus DS has recently been awarded an EU Horizon Grant to improve their respective capacities together with other players in the field. Smaller and more affordable satellites, such as the CubeSats developed by NASA, are becoming increasingly popular with government, academic and scientific organisations. All these options should contribute to a significant reduction in costs.
The proliferation of satellites in space will be accompanied by major changes in the ground segment and mission tasks. The most important improvements will undoubtedly be in the overall capacity of the system, as well as in the reliability and speed of data acquisition and processing from multiple sources – i.e. satellites. Domino-E is one of the most ambitious projects in this area. By integrating satellites and ground segments in a federation system, it will change the architecture of EO operations to allow multiple missions (or data from multiple satellites) through a single interface. New business opportunities, products and services are on the horizon. The single interface for mission tasking will then be further developed. From now on, many mission tasking experts will be employed to turn customer requests into mission tasks. With AI-based large language modelling (LLM) and machine learning having made a major breakthrough in 2023, there is a good chance that the way customers request imagery and the protocols that mission tasking experts follow when crafting customer requests into mission tasks will be leveraged to new levels, making Earth observation even more accessible.
EO use cases
With the increasing capabilities of satellites equipped with ever better imaging technology, from radar to photo, the space observation market is expected to continue to grow in terms of the development of actual use cases. While this is not a focus of Domino-E, the development of such use cases and applications is still an important interest. In addition to the probably most common services and applications used for military and security purposes, there is now a wide range of civil use cases such as biodiversity monitoring, weather and climate forecasting, disaster mitigation and more. Projects and services have been developed to assess energy poverty using EO data, to control and document formal and informal urban sprawl, or to inform and assess the impact of bark beetles on our forests. With these developments, we have also seen an increase in the combination of different types of data – EO data are used cumulatively and form one of many layers of data needed to make more accurate predictions, assumptions and policy advice. With an increased awareness of the power and quality of bird’s eye data, we have also begun to test the limits of satellite-based EO. It is no secret that images taken by well-equipped drones can offer even higher resolution, with less interference and fewer government restrictions, so the future development of the satellite EO market will also depend on what decisions and developments are made for the clearance of such imagery, as well as the much-hyped drone market of late.
Most of us remember the early days of publicly available EO data. And many things, talking about technology but also applications, their adoption and consolidation, have changed since then; quite some limits that were apparent twenty years ago have been left behind. In those years, it seems that satellite-based EO has become a kind of gold standard for remote sensing. Satellite orbits provide certainty and reliability, they are almost independent of human intervention. It seems there is no rocket that could take them down. What adds to this gold standard and continuity is the highly innovative ecosystem, eager not only to respond to the demands of government agencies, but also to launch and fund their own programmes. That said, the future of EO will be one of new frontiers, significant growth and innovation.
Gil Denis, Alain Claverie, Xavier Pasco, Jean-Pierre Darnis, Benoît de Maupeou, Murielle Lafaye, Eric Morel; 2017. Towards disruptions in Earth observation? New Earth Observation systems and markets evolution: Possible scenarios and impacts. Acta Astronautica Vol. 137, pp. 415-433.
Spacetec Partners, 2016. Financial landscape for space-related ventures in Europe”, slides presented during the workshop Access to Finance for European space industry, European Commission, DG GROW Brussels, 3 May 2016.