The Savina Caylyn oil tanker was near the Yemeni island of Socotra when five pirates boarded and turned off its tracking systems, disabling surveillance of the 105,000-ton vessel by its insurance company.
Investigators commissioned the Cosmo-Skymed satellite to fly across the seas close to the coast of Somalia to see if there were any clues to what had happened.
Shortly after, a murky photograph of a light revealed, upon close examination, the Savina Caylyn en route to what would turn out to be a mooring area for tankers captured by pirates.
That was in February 2011 and, while piracy in the Indian Ocean was nothing new, that satellite technology should be used in such a way by a commercial company to find a missing ship was a relatively fresh development. The success of the operation is used by a British body which promotes the use of emerging technologies to illustrate the possibilities for UK companies of using big data from space.
In the Oxfordshire offices of the Satellite Applications Catapult, one of a network of technology and innovation centres established by the Technology Strategy Board to generate growth, a screen displays another maritime project – this time created with an environmental charity – that investigates vessels that switch off their Automatic Identification System (AIS)before fishing illegally, thinking they cannot be traced. Satellite imagery can monitor the paths of fishing vessels and there are plans for data to be relayed to the authorities if illegal activity is suspected.
The Satellite Applications Catapult is working to make businesses aware of the variety of data that is available and to help companies to benefit from it in an attempt to make Britain an international player in the use of satellite applications, according to Alan Cox, the director of the body’s trading arm.
Milton Keynes council plans to start using satellite information in September to track planning violations. Using photographs of the town taken quarterly, software will pinpoint changes in buildings. Agreed planning permissions will show up in blue and developments in orange. Where the two do not agree, the council will investigate. Previously, a five-person team covering 340 sq km of land had to rely on methods such as tips from locals to find violations.
“One of the reasons the catapults have been set up is this criticism of the UK by the UK that we are brilliant at innovation but terrible at commercialising it – we lose the idea or give the idea away. So part of this is taking existing technology, existing capability, and talking to customers with real-world problems,” said Cox.
“The issue is that, if we do nothing, then we will be buying Chinese [and] Indian applications rather than at least having a share of the market.”
The available satellite data with the highest detail has a magnification of 50cm to a pixel, so cars and houses are easily identifiable. Geospatial Insight uses satellite data to estimate the limits of flood damage for insurance companies so they can assess their exposure and is also developing methods to advise financial companies on the likely seasonal yields of commodities such as palm oil.
Dave Fox, the managing director, said developments in technology meant ideas that would not have been possible to realise only a few years ago had become viable propositions.
“Five years ago, there were probably 10 to 15 useful satellites that you could apply into this type of market,” he said. “The problem was that a satellite might only come over a particular spot every 26 days or every 30 days. It was very hard to get the [repetition] to deliver a reliable service.
“There are probably now 120 useful satellites as of today and this year it is probably going to be nearer 200.”
AgSpace, a Swindon-based company of 20 people, started using satellite imagery so that the quality of crops could be identified by farmers. Photographs of large swaths of land are processed for farms ranging from 200 to 10,000 acres. Analysis reveals soil types and the quality of crop yields, among other information, so that farmers can plan how best to use their land. “What used to take two, three, four years in trials with academics, we can now look at the data and do in hours,” director Vincent Gillingham said.
WeatherSafe in Oxfordshire aims to use data to advise coffee farmers about the best way to manage their land by collating and interpreting data on soil absorption, plant health and other factors to determine how to work fields.
Director Francesco Liucci said the model could be adapted to any sort of agricultural production.
With the possibility of much smaller satellites soon being launched in greater numbers, it is expected that the price of data that can be provided from space will come down as economies of scale and greater competition come into play.
A farmer using the AgSpace service can expect to pay between £5 and £10 a year per hectare, depending on the level of service. Milton Keynes council would pay about £100,000 a year for satellite images and interpretation, said Cox.
Disaster response is another area that can utilise photographs from space. Sentinel-1A, the first in a fleet of satellites for the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Earth observation project, which was previously known as Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, launched on 3 April. It will offer images in the event of a natural disaster such as an oil spill. It has already fed back data mapping the floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Images generated by the project will be available free of charge.