"There are applications that we haven't even thought about now that are going to be developed into the future. It's a really exciting area and it's still in its infancy," says Dr Barry Fennell. Dr Fennell is the Irish delegate to the European Space Agencies Earth Observation Board. He promotes the Copernicus programme, which is launching the Sentinel satellites, and he works closely with Irish SMEs and entrepreneurs.
The ESA will launch six Sentinel missions, with two satellites being launched per mission. Sentinel 1A was launched on April 3. It is the largest-ever earth observation initiative undertaken and puts Europe at the forefront of earth observation. All the data is available on a free-and-open access basis and because of this, it provides many opportunities for Irish industries and entrepreneurs.
For every euro that is invested in Copernicus, an additional €7 to €10 will be returned in economic value. These services can be exported to international markets. It has a huge potential for economic benefit for Ireland and will create new job opportunities.
Enda Keane, the CEO of Treemetrics, uses the data from the Sentinel satellite in his business. Treemetrics measures and manages forests. With the help of the European Space Agency, he has launched a new web-based platform called Forest Assessor that analyses data from satellite sensors and ground based 3D Laser Scanners. From this information they help forest owners to more sustainably and more profitably manage their forest. They have successfully operated this system in over 25 countries.
"We use the satellite data to monitor the forest for any changes due to storms, disease, fire and theft. We have developed automated software that can detect these changes automatically and send a message to the owner. The Sentinel programme will make available continuous new data which is vital for us to deliver our service," says Mr Keane.
Ireland now has over 18,000 private forest owners who can use this information.
"We are well on the way to our mission to index every tree in the world."
The Sentinel Programme is key to Treemetrics's future expansion. With it, they will be able to give a real-time service to forest-owners globally in a cost effective manner. The Sentinel observation satellites are being launched under the ESA's Copernicus programme.
"Copernicus was developed with the recognition that the earth is precious and we all need to protect it and its environment. One way we can do that is by collecting information. We can collect data by putting satellites into space. We can put a range of different cameras and sensors on these satellites. The data collected from the satellites develop very interesting pictures and information."
According to Dr Fennell, "We are looking at what's going on in the atmosphere, whether from a climate change perspective or what's happening on the land. How does the farming community use the land? How fast is the grass growing?"
Marine environment is also important. The satellites can look at the quality of our water, coastal erosion, where the next oil spill is coming from, or where it's going to.
Copernicus is about collecting information to inform the community about what's going on. With climate change, it's essential to understand, for example, how the polar ice caps are melting.
"We need to use that information to mitigate the effects of climate change and inform government and environmental protection agencies in terms of developing policy to protect the environment for future generations," explains Dr Fennell. The programme is unique because all the data that's being collected by the Sentinel satellites will be made available on a free-and-open access basis.
There are also numerous opportunities for Irish academics, through third-level research institutes.
"They can all use this information. There are companies who already use this data," says Dr Fennell.
Such companies include Techworks Marine, which is developing and using satellite data for measuring wave heights and wind speed.
This is significant for the offshore marine renewable energy sector. For the aqua-farming industry, a company might need to find out when the best time is to harvest the fish. If there is a forecast showing there is an impending harmful algae bloom coming in or if there is a huge influx of jelly fish, a fish farm's salmon may need to be harvested sooner rather than later.
In 2007, a fish farm off the coast of Ireland was wiped out in 24 hours when it was invaded by a jellyfish bloom.
The jellyfish stung the salmon to death. "If you have a three to five-day forecast to say there is a strong likelihood that there is going to be a jellyfish bloom in this area at least people can use that as a decision support tool,' says Dr Fennell.
Last year in Sweden, a nuclear power plant had to be shut down because jellyfish blocked the water intake which was needed to cool down the nuclear reactors. Jellyfish are becoming more common in seas around the world and this is a having huge impact on marine-related industries. When you combine these types of data, you develop powerful information. Companies use this information and can develop services around it.
Another company, ERA Maptech, uses high-resolution satellite spectral data to detect illegal landfill sites. If the satellite shows a change in vegetation in a remote area, that could be indicative of human activity. After storm Darwin on February 12, 2014, there was a large amount of damage done to forests. The ESA was able to access satellite maps which pointed towards where the damage occurred.
The same goes with flood damage. The maps can tell you where the flood damage is. That can assist into the future in terms of predicting where flooding is going to occur. Defence mechanisms can then be installed. Sentinel 1A can detect land subsidence down to an accuracy of 1mm. The other major advantage with sentinel 1A is that it has a particular type of radar called a Synthetic Aperture Radar, which is used for penetrating cloud. Ireland has a lot of cloud cover and most sensors cannot see through it.
This has always been a big challenge for Ireland. We can access the data 24 hours, day or night, in all weather conditions. Academics and researchers are developing and commercialising intellectual property with the support of Enterprise Ireland and the ESA. This will eventually lead them to developing spin outs and setting up new companies. "It's an exciting time for new opportunities. We can't over estimate the (number) of new opportunities there will be for Irish businesses," says Dr Fennell. Ireland has been involved with the ESA for years, and we are now starting to really reap the benefits.
Sunday Indo Business