How Edinburgh is pioneering satellite technology to help in the fight against climate change

Edinburgh is developing space technology that will provide powerful tools in the battle against climate change with the Data Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative putting in place the core infrastructure to help in this fight, while also helping to support the emerging space technology ecosystem.

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The Data SlipStream, hosted on the Edinburgh International Data Facility (EIDF) is a first step towards creating a system to enable the processing and analysis of large volumes of satellite imagery and other geospatial data. This will accelerate the speed of space research and product development happening in the capital.

Crucially, this new infrastructure will give companies and organisations access to the University of Edinburgh’s network of world-class scientists and data experts, facilitating the development of new algorithms that produce useful information from satellite data.

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The Bayes Centre – one of the core DDI hubs – continues to act as a catalyst for growth through its funding of the growing Scottish space sector and its support through mentorship and training.

Dr Murray Collins is the space lead at the Bayes Centre, charged with promoting and developing the Space sector in the region, and co-ordinating space activity across the University of Edinburgh.

He is also a DDI Chancellor’s Fellow, tasked with encouraging entrepreneurial staff and students, supporting existing SMEs and driving the developments of tech-based start-ups across south-east Scotland.

Collins said: “Edinburgh aspires to be the Space Data Capital of Europe. Earth observation satellite data, is crucial for monitoring earth system processes and also supporting decision-making for companies and governments investing in large scale conservation and restoration activity.”

A key step on the road to delivering Edinburgh’s ambitions of becoming the Space Capital of Europe is the Data SlipStream, led by Professor Matt Williams from the School of GeoSciences . This will be used to store, process and analyse large volumes of data from Earth Observation satellites, creating useful information for policy makers here in Scotland.

The venture will primarily be used by organisations and companies involved in climate change mitigation activities. However it could also be used to assist business and government in the agriculture, forestry,​health, finance, coastal and freshwater management sectors ​and much more.

The SingleTree system, which is also part of the Data SlipStream project, is in partnership with Resilience Constellation Management. The DDI initiative that will enable the detection of small land use changes through spacesatellites down to the level of a single tree.

DATA SLIPSTREAM

Kristina Tamane, space business development executive at the University helps create collaborative projects between the University of Edinburgh and industrial partners​ and leads on coordinating space activities for the overarching Space Innovation Hub.

She says: “Space gives Scotland the chance to lead the conversation on sustainability globally because of the skills, expertise and end-to-end capability that we have here.

“The EIDF and Data SlipStream will enable us to clean up data coming back from satellites and make it usable. It will save researchers time and speed up projects, as scientists will now have to spend days rather than weeks going through the data.”

Collins says he is hopeful that the EIDF will be harnessed as a University-wide resource for satellite and other geospatial data, surrounded by a team of experts in data analytics, thereby creating a “sandpit” for innovation.

He said: “Five or ten years ago, earth observation data had to be downloaded to your own server, but now it is routinely held in the cloud. This means we can take algorithms to the data, allowing rapid scaling of new technologies.

“The EPCC will create a sandpit for innovation where staff and partner companies come and experiment with new algorithms and new analytical processes. Students, such as those in the SENSE Centre for Doctoral Training, will benefit from working with leaders in big data computing and teams from industry.

“The difference between this system and other cloud data providers is that Edinburgh has a network of world-class expertise in the analysis of big data that can be brought to bear on new challenges.”

Collins’ career trajectory epitomises the aims of the DDI programme in combining academia with entrepreneurship.

Murray began his career measuring in the jungles of Indonesia, then measuring trees for the Gabonese Government before embarking on a PhD on forest carbon measurement and management at the London School of Economics.

He then worked on a post doctorate at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences with Prof. Edward Mitchard, mapping out forest carbon using satellite data. Murray then undertook a NERC-funded RSE Enterprise Fellowship, before co-founding Space Intelligence; and then being invited back to the University of Edinburgh as a DDI Chancellor’s Fellow.

This venture produces land cover maps for Scotland using satellite data and machine learning to illustrate how our forests, grasslands meadows are changing over time.

The maps are used by NatureScot, which works to improve Scotland’s natural environment, to quantify its natural capital asset index, and also by the Scottish Government to help shape policy.

BUILDING BACK BETTER

Collins echoes Tamane’s comments about Scotland being well-placed to take advantage of the growth of the green and space economies, due to its universities and support from government.

The global space market will be worth £400 billion by 2030, according to consultancy firm London Economics, while there are more than 133 space companies in Scotland.

Collins says: “By using these technologies to map out forest carbon stocks and create decision-support tools, you can help companies invest in climate change mitigation; you can then also provide long-term monitoring of those assets. All of this means that you are generating high-quality jobs.

“These are jobs that require expertise in satellite operations, data analytics and connections to multiple sectors across the economy.

“We have a lot of high-quality universities, a strong footing in the space industry and strong targets from the Scottish Government on climate change. All of which means there is an opportunity here to create an export-driven sector of the economy based on the restoration of natural capital, and tackling the defining environmental challenges of our time: climate change and biodiversity loss.”