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19th Jan 2020

Copernicus: Looking at Europe's problems from space

  • The Libyan desert, photographed by Sentinel-2A, one of the Copernicus satellites (Photo: Copernicus/ESA)

European farmers can receive EU subsidies for maintaining permanent grassland. But how do authorities make sure farmers do what they promised?

"It is unfeasible to do proper checks with inspectors," said Estonian scientist Kaupo Voormansik during a presentation at a conference in Prague on Tuesday (10 May).

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  • Artist's impression of satellite Sentinel-1B in orbit. The actual satellite was launched on 25 April 2016 (Photo: European Space Agency)

The cost to check all farmers would be much higher than the actual amount of subsidies paid unfairly to farmers, he said. Grassland covers almost one fifth of the EU's land.

But Voormansik is working on a solution using data that was gathered by Earth observation programme Copernicus, a joint project of the European Union and the European Space Agency.

He is still in the experimental phase, but to him the benefits of using space data are clear.

"The money would be redistributed from the deliberately cheating farmers to the honest farmers and there is a reduced need for in situ inspections," he said.

The grass-checking exercise is but one of many examples of how scientists, public bodies and private enterprises are using data gathered by the project's satellites, called Sentinels. There are now four Sentinels in orbit, named 1A, 1B, 2A, and 3A.

Each Sentinel, the first of which was launched on 3 April 2014, has a speciality. Last month Sentinel-1B was put in orbit, completing the set of two Sentinel-1 satellites that are monitoring, among other things, sea ice zones, the Arctic environment, and land surfaces.

This week over 3,000 people gathered at an event organised by the European Space Agency in Prague, to take stock of the current and future applications of the seven-year Copernicus programme.

One coffee less

With a price tag of €4.3 billion, the project's supporters are keen to show the potential benefits to the public.

"You have to fight with other policies like agriculture, migration, climate change, and many of them," said Mauro Facchini, the project's head of unit at the European Commission.

When you translate the €4.3 billion figure – "so huge for space activities" – into costs per European citizen, you end up with slightly more than a euro per person.

"It's around one coffee per person per year," said Facchini, noting that every €1 spent in the programme is expected to generate a return of €3.

The range of data that the satellites offer is very diverse.

Companies that are looking for the best spot to place solar panels may use the data on solar radiation.

The EU's environmental agency taps into the data to map the state of the continent's environment. Forest fires and floods can also be mapped from space.

An infrared image of the Italian Po Valley, providing information on crop type and health (Photo: Copernicus data (2015)/ESA)

Sudden water shortages - sometimes linked to conflict like in Syria - can be detected, as well possible food shortages by looking at crop health via infrared.

And in November last year, the European Commission signed an agreement with border agency Frontex under which the latter receives €47.6 million in funding to spend on using satellite data to deal with the migration crisis.

"We cannot say that today we can identify ships in the Mediterranean," said Facchini.

"But for sure there is some prevention that can be provided, for example looking at the North African borders, in order to see if ships are there and suddenly they disappear the next day."

Satellite information may also reveal the emergence of camps right outside the EU's borders.

The application by Frontex is still in "the ramping up phase", said Facchini, although the Copernicus website said that ahead of the funding agreement, Frontex had already used Copernicus in September 2015 to find a seven-meter boat that was reported lost by Moroccan authorities - 38 migrants were rescued.

Faster updates

Thanks to technological advancement, radar images from satellites can be updated much more frequently than before.

That also creates new challenges.

"The data amount we produce is enormous. We are in the petabyte era," said Volker Liebig, director of Earth observation programmes at the European Space Agency.

He said that users had downloaded almost 5 petabytes of Sentinel-1 data, which roughly compares to 10,000 years of music in MP3 format.

To deal with the exponentially growing data trove, the ESA and the EU commission are looking how to improve access to the data, which is free for everyone.

Privacy

One other aspect that will become more pressing in the future is privacy.

According to Beth Greenaway, head of Earth Observation at the UK Space Agency, there was some debate about privacy at a space conference in the UK last year.

"But it was just touching the surface, saying: this is coming, this is going to be a real issue," she told this website. As all Copernicus data is free and open, there needs to be a debate about what images of Europeans' backyards, or who they meet there, can remain private.

"That's a big issue we all need to grapple with. Privacy and security law. It is going to hit us sooner than we think."

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