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Key EO developments expected to define 2021 (Part 2)

7 min.

Last week we had a first look at key 2020 trends expected to impact the Earth Observation (EO) sector in 2021 and, in all likelihood, for years to come. We therefore zoomed in on some of the main ecosystem developments, discussed how public and private investment appear to be increasing, and underlined the importance of EO in supporting key policy initiatives such as the Green Deal and the New Industrial Strategy for Europe. Further, we will attempt to shed light on yet another 5 dimensions that may define how EO activities will unfold in the near future.  

1. Satellite capabilities – the “old”, the bold and the beautiful

The value of EO-based solutions stems, to a large degree, from the fundamental capability of monitoring the Earth’s surface in the best detail and as often as possible. This capability has been steadily improving in recent years with sub-metre resolution and daily acquisition becoming the benchmark (or holy grail!) of commercial solutions. 2021 promises to be a landmark year in that regard if we are to consider the number of planned satellite launches and their expected impact on EO-based solutions. Thus, the “old” players, Airbus and Maxar, are set to launch their new satellites in 2021, Pleiades NEO and Worldview Legion respectively.

In parallel, the “bold”, i.e. NewSpace start-ups with a Silicon Valley attitude, are pushing for the commoditisation of EO data through agile business models and low-cost off-the-self technologies launching mega-constellations (of small-sats) in space. Many of them will be using the rideshare flights offered by SpaceX, among these Planet has announced the launch of 48 superdoves, Iceye is set to expand its SAR constellation by three and Satellogic has recently signed a contract for the launch of more satellites beginning June 2021. Besides expanding the existing traditional capabilities, several such start-ups seek to deploy new instruments and methods including video capture (e.g. Earth-i) and RF analytics (e.g. Hawkeye 360). Interestingly, this trend sees the traditional market powers, USA and Europe, joined by new entrants such as the Indian Pixxel who is also planning its inaugural launch in 2021. 

Figure.1: A host of satellites are to be placed in orbit in 2021 some of them using the Space X ridesharing programme

Keeping with the wordplay in the section title, the “beautiful” – that is those providing EO data for free (Copernicus and Landsat) – are also ramping up their capabilities by adding new instruments. For instance, Copernicus has recently seen the successful launch of Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, and signed key contracts to further enhance its constellation’s capabilities with hyperspectral (CHIME), microwave (CIMR) and thermal-infrared (LSTM) sensors. On the other side of the Atlantic, the USA is preparing for the launch of Landsat-9 in September 2021.

All these launches create a very interesting mix of capabilities thus paving the way towards new EO-based applications and therefore additional value for end users. However, for this to be fully realised, a number of other technological capabilities are required, as discussed below.

2. AI – EO’s best friend but not the only one

It really is no surprise that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become EO’s best friend. Beyond the technical benefits whereby AI techniques are deployed to (i) handle big and diverse EO data sets, (ii) process them in automated chains, (iii) extract all sorts of features, and (iv) generate insight, AI has also been an excellent “marketing tool” which companies offering EO-based analytics successfully used in recent years. It is thus no exaggeration to note that virtually all new projects, be these funded by Horizon 2020, ESA or national agencies, and all EO value adding companies and service providers – new or old – make a strong claim on how AI allows them to do valuable things more effectively.

From counting cars and elephants to producing intricate indices for commodity trading in conjunction with other alternative data, and everything in between, AI and EO have become inseparable. This AI-EO convergence will no doubt carry on strongly in 2021, with multiple initiatives (e.g. AI4EO), projects (see, for instance, those presented at the recent workshop on Big Data and Artificial Intelligence for EO), and companies pushing the boundaries towards advanced analytics. Since advanced analytics translate into new business models, we will discuss this next but, before we do so, it is worth noting that other technologies are also expected to attract more attention.

A prime example is blockchain, which has been slowly gaining momentum with different use cases being explored. This includes using blockchain data structures for the validation of EO data and metadata, as well as for supply chain tracking (both for the upstream EO and some downstream EO application sectors – see, for example, the farm to fork paradigm). Just a few months back we also saw the launch of a blockchain-enabled Credit Management and Payment Service in support of the store4EO micro-geoservices e-commerce platform.

3. Business Models

New satellite capabilities and advanced AI-enabled analytics are driving the development and implementation of new business models in the EO sector across the entire value chain. On the upstream, we have already noted the proliferation of venture-backed start-ups that seek to deploy large constellations of low(er) cost satellites which can be more easily launched – often through ridesharing – and replaced. As more and more satellites are placed in orbit, more companies are seizing the opportunity of promoting a novel Ground Segment as a Service (GSaaS) model. In practice, they target NewSpace satellite operators offering them a simple, flexible, and cost-effective way to communicate with their satellites, get and even process the acquired data. This new arena is driven by heavyweights such as AWS and, more recently, Microsoft Azure; nonetheless, smaller companies such as Leaf (backed by the SME Instrument) are also making headlines.

On the downstream side, a wide range of business models is at play, from Data-as-a-Service (long-time champions Airbus and Maxar alongside many of the NewSpace actors) to Platform-as-a-Service (which has multiple variations), and from Information-as-a-Service (i.e. the “traditional” EO service provision scheme) to Intelligence or Analytics as a Service. What is perhaps even more interesting is the greater flexibility with which several players adopt multiple models or change from one to the next in their pursuit of long-term viability. With many of these models in full swing for a few years now, we can expect some concrete lessons learned to become visible as of 2021. In that regard, the e-shape sustainability booster will seek to analyse some developments in greater detail over the next months.

4. Digital transformation (digital twin, destination earth)

A key driver of many of the above trends is the continuous digital transformation of both business processes and policy implementation practices. This has been further sped up by the COVID-19 pandemic and seems poised to drive many activities in the next years. In a dedicated article, published last August, we have highlighted a series of developments associated with the European Strategy for Data introducing the Destination Earth Initiative alongside a number of other activities at the intersection of digitalisation and the Green Deal – all of great interest to the EO community. All this will be gradually implemented as of 2021.

5. Horizon Europe

As the last Horizon 2020 calls are closing – most notably the very “EO-aware” Green Deal calls, the next chapter of R&D and innovation in Europe will be realised through Horizon Europe. With a 30% increase in budget and a mission-oriented approach (whereby 4/5 of the missions are clearly benefitting from EO), Horizon Europe promises to drive a wide range of activities which will focus on, or require the contribution of EO solutions. The implementation phase is “at the gates” as political agreement was achieved in December 2020. What remains to be seen is how the different work programmes are to incorporate Copernicus and EO – a matter which the e-shape sustainability booster will be closely monitoring.

Still to come…

This article constitutes the 2nd part of a brief overview of trends we consider defining for the bigger picture of EO going forward. Both articles have only scratched the surface – deeper insights on the finer details of the points raised will be provided in the coming months so, stay tuned!