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Interview With An Expert: Aravind Ravichandran On Satellites and Earth Observation Industry.

Please tell us a little about yourself, TerraWatch Space and your journey in Earth Observation industry. 

I am originally from India, but currently based in France. My background used to be in computer science and business but I transitioned into the space industry specialising in EO about 6 years ago. I was fascinated with the potential of EO, yet I was not sure why it was not widely adopted and used across industries. So, I started going into a rabbit hole trying to understand the market, the technologies and the use cases – and, 6 years later, I am still here. I founded TerraWatch Space in 2020 with a goal to make Earth observation (EO) mainstream by demystifying the technology and increasing the awareness of its applications. TerraWatch Space is a strategic advisory and communications firm providing consulting services for startups, large enterprises, space agencies and investors while also working with end-users of Earth observation for the adoption of satellite data within their organisations. 

I felt like the areas which had the widest gaps were i) in the awareness of the potential of EO and the landscape of EO providers in the market and ii) the adoption of EO by organisations especially to identify how EO can add value to their companies. And that is what TerraWatch is focused on – i) spread awareness about EO through the newsletter and the podcast and ii) advise organisations on their EO adoption strategies.

Can you briefly explain the significance of Earth observation satellites and their role in understanding our planet better? 

Satellites are the best tools to understand our planet because i) they can monitor globally, ii) they can monitor over time and iii) they can monitor across the electromagnetic spectrum, meaning they can see almost everything. Essentially, what EO satellites monitor can be categorised into three areas: land, air and oceans. This includes environmental indicators, societal indicators, societal indicators as well as strategic indicators (related to defence and security). 
EO satellites not only help us understand the science of the planet – from the forests to the oceans, but they also play a key role in daily lives – from predicting the weather that we check everyday to monitoring the crops that become food on our tables. Without EO satellites, not only will we not be able to understand our planets, we will also not be able to live our lives everyday. Today, we have roughly close to a thousand satellites in orbit monitoring the environment on the planet, life on the planet and the relationship between humans and the environment. 

How have Earth observation satellites evolved over the years, and what are some of the cutting-edge technologies currently being used in this field? 

The earliest EO satellites were used primarily for intelligence applications, but as the technology advanced, both weather satellites and imaging satellites became more prominent for scientific research. EO satellites are equipped with a diversity of sensors that are capable of monitoring different aspects of our planet – multispectral instruments that can monitor crops and ocean, hyperspectral instruments that can help identify crop species and analyse waste from mines and industries, radar instruments that are capable of monitoring across day and night in all weather conditions, thermal infrared instruments that can detect wildfires, plant water levels and building heat and lidar instruments that are capable of mapping the world in 3D. 

Progress in EO is not only happening on the satellite (hardware) level, but also on the data processing (software) level, thanks to the advancements in digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing and data visualisation.

What are some of the primary challenges in developing and launching Earth observation satellites, and how are they being addressed?

The challenges are both financial and technological. Financial challenges are being addressed by both public funding provided by space agencies in the form of grants and R&D support as well as private funding, thanks to the growth of the NewSpace sector with investors and venture capitalists. The technological challenges have to do with the functioning of the instrument in orbit (depending on the type of instrument) as well as the ability to generate high quality data that is comparable or better than other sources such as aerial and drone imagery, while making sure that the costs do not become a barrier.

How do Earth observation satellites contribute to industries such as agriculture, disaster management, and environmental monitoring? Could you mention any interesting/less highlighted applications? 

EO satellites have a huge role to play across several industries. In agriculture, from supporting crop monitoring and advisory for nutrition and irrigation management to helping governments and insurance companies understand the expected yield from farms, the applications are numerous. One of the most crucial use cases of satellite data is in disaster management, both for predicting disasters, thanks to the huge repository of data collected over decades that help prediction as well for disaster management, thanks to the ability of satellites to collect data over a disaster zone without any obstacles, for instance, with floods, typhoons and earthquakes.

One of the least highlighted applications is the use of EO satellites in the domain of oceans and ice monitoring, in which satellites measure variables like sea surface temperature (showing how warm the oceans are becoming) and ice sheet movement (showing how quickly the glaciers are melting in the Arctic and Antarctic regions). Satellites can even detect changes to the above variables to the smallest levels (for example up to millimeter levels).

In what ways do emerging countries benefit from launching their own Earth observation satellites? 

Emerging countries benefit the highest from EO satellites, simply because for a lot of them, existing data availability and infrastructure is low. Whether it is for getting information on the rate of growth of the towns and cities or the rate of growth of electrification of their population or the rate of change of environmental variables such as water quality, air quality, green spaces etc. Countries where there are existing gaps in statistical information can be filled with satellite data, which is especially the case for several important variables that are necessary for efficient policy making. Given the huge investment needed in developing ground infrastructure, satellites become the automatic choice for these countries, especially because launching their own EO satellites can be complementary to open data sources available from programmes such as Copernicus and Landsat. 

How do you see the role of private companies like SpaceX in shaping the future of Earth observation satellites and space exploration in general? 

Private companies have a huge role to play in the future of EO, specifically because they have an increased level of risk taking ability, given that space agencies are largely dependent on tax payer money. Along with funding, private companies can also leverage the demand from across industries such as insurance, financial services, agriculture, mining etc. and develop commercial products. In general, the private sector can sometimes play a very complementary role and in other cases a leading role in the development of the space sector.

With an increasing number of satellites being launched, what measures are being taken to address concerns about space debris and overcrowded orbits? 

This is an important topic and in my opinion, does not get enough attention. Space debris is not only an environmental concern but also an existential concern for EO satellites – given that an increased likelihood of collision will also have an effect on EO satellites, and therefore EO companies. Some companies follow their own guidelines for deorbiting their satellites, while others do not have any public policies on this subject. We certainly need more rules, regulations and disclosures from private companies in this area.

Can you share any notable examples of how Earth observation satellite data has led to significant breakthroughs or discoveries in recent years? 

There have been several important breakthroughs made possible thanks to EO satellites. Whether it is monitoring how water moves across the planet leading to monitoring climate or the use of EO for tracking global biodiversity variables or the recent discovery of how climate change is making droughts more likely, there are several examples of the use of EO. 

One of my favourites is how satellites provided insights on the harvest of crops in Ukraine last year, which got international attention due to the scale of the issue and the fact that no other technology could have enabled this insight.

As the costs of satellite development and launch decrease, do you foresee a surge in the number of countries and companies investing in Earth observation satellites? How might this impact the field? 

Yes, most countries would want to invest in launching their own EO satellites, and I believe this is due to three factors: 

i) Global trends, including climate change and evolving geopolitics: The war in Ukraine has pushed countries around the world to strengthen their strategic assets, one of which happens to be the use of satellites for Earth Observation, for national security reasons. This, combined with the climate crisis and particularly the need to invest in environmental monitoring tools, has provided the fundamental rationale for countries to invest in EO.

ii) Strategic interests for sovereignty and data independence: Although there are hundreds of EO satellites in orbit from both institutions and commercial companies, and thousands planned to be launched in the coming decade, most countries are interested in making sure that they are data independent for sovereign purposes. This has led to a few EO national constellations being announced by some countries, even if they are not significantly different from those already in orbit.

iii) The socio-economic rationale for EO: As much as EO is strategic from a global perspective, for each country, investing in the sector guarantees advancement of skills for the local population, as well as thousands of jobs. While this depends on whether there are existing capabilities within, there is considerable pressure to have a roadmap towards indigenous capabilities, through the private EO sector.

How are Earth observation satellites being used to monitor and combat climate change, and what potential do they hold for helping humanity tackle this pressing issue? 

Satellites have been observing the planet for the past several decades and as such have seen the evolution of important climate observing variables. From a scientific standpoint, these variables, officially called Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) are the fundamental to monitoring climate change in which EO satellites directly contribute to at least half of them. From a commercial standpoint, organisations around the world are starting to invest in systems to monitor and report variables like emissions and climate risk, which in some countries, have become mandatory. Apart from these, satellites, as we have discussed before, are fundamental to any disaster prediction and management efforts and as such are critical for extreme weather situations. In essence, EO satellites have a critical role to play in our future with both the mitigation and adaptation of climate change.

Are there any current international collaborations or partnerships in Earth observation satellite development that you find particularly exciting or promising? 

There are several ongoing international initiatives in EO that will enhance our understanding of our planet and contribute to a sustainable future. India’s space agency, ISRO’s partnership with NASA for the NISAR mission is a crucial development which will deploy a very advanced EO satellite for measuring changes of our planet’s surface. EarthCARE, which is a ESA-JAXA collaboration mission, will launch a satellite to monitor clouds and aerosols and their impact on climate change. 

Collaborations are not only in the development of satellites, but also in the development of applications from satellite data. Earth Observing Dashboard, an initiative from ESA, NASA and JAXA provides access to various indicators on a global scale to get information for applications in agriculture, economy, oceans etc. The recent partnership between the EU and the Philippines, called CopPhil, is focused on providing the Philippines with real-time access to data from the EU’s Copernicus satellites for disaster management applications.

What do you envision for the future of Earth observation satellites, and how do you think they will shape our understanding of our planet in the years to come? 

EO satellites are already a fundamental part of our lives, even though we do not realise it. Whether it is when we check the weather or when we verify the air pollution levels or when we decide the risk of buying a house in a flood zone, satellite data is crucial to these applications and several more. As the growth of the space industry continues around the world, the role of EO satellites will increase especially for countries who have not had the opportunity to launch their own assets into space. EO is not only a vital part of understanding the planet and performing scientific research, but more crucially, they will be integrated into several commercial products that we will use in the future. We might not realise that a piece of information that we got was thanks to satellite data, but this is more likely to be the case for several products across industries. 

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