Thursday, November 3, 2011

Geoscience Australia publishes landmark Australian Earth Observation Needs Paper

Geoscience Australia has recently undertaken a significant amount of work looking into exactly what Earth Observation data from space that Australia needs up to 2015.

As a result, Geoscience Australia has just published a landmark paper called "Continuity of Earth Observation Data for Australia - Operational Requirements to 2015 for Lands, Coasts and Oceans", which you can download for free here.

It is a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the Australian governments use of Earth Observation Data from space, and provides a snapshot of the current risks of Australia facing a shortfall of data before 2015.

Whilst the entire report is worth reading in detail, I can highly recommend taking a look at the summary sections, as well as the sections on 'economic value' and 'applications and usage of EOS'.

I thought it would be interesting to reproduce the "key points" summary of the document here (copyright from Geoscience Australia):

1. Earth Observations from Space (EOS) data have become pivotal to most environmental monitoring activities being undertaken by federal and state governments in Australia.
2. Australia is totally reliant on foreign satellites for EOS data.
3. Of the 22 EOS sensors currently being used for operational programs in Australia, 19 (86%) are expected to cease functioning by 2015.
4. Australia has not secured access to any future space-based sensors that are relevant to observing the Australian land mass and its coastal regions.
5. Alternate, non satellite-based sources of data do not exist for most types of space-based EOS data, especially those used for environmental monitoring programs.
6. In contrast with the projected rapidly decreasing access to EOS data, Australia’s EOS requirements are expected to increase significantly over the next decade. To support a sample set of 91 operational government programs, the total annual EOS data storage requirements in 2015 were conservatively estimated at 1.2 PB per year. This represents a twentyfold increase on current annual EOS data storage. These estimates do not include meteorological applications, research and development activities, or new sensor technologies.
7. Two data types, medium resolution optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), are most at risk of data gaps before 2015 for land and marine applications.
8. Data continuity for low and high resolution optical data, and for passive microwave data, is also of concern, but improved access to these data types has a lower priority due to the availability of alternative data sources and/or current levels of data usage in land and coastal applications.
9. Urgent action is needed to ensure that the imminent and potentially damaging EOS data gaps are not realised.
10. Australia’s participation in the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) and ESA’s Sentinel missions would significantly reduce the risk of the projected EOS data gaps in the high priority data types and should be the focus of immediate action. It should also be a priority to encourage an on-going Landsat program.
11. As a matter of priority Australia needs to formalise agreements with several upcoming EOS missions, and formulate a decadal infrastructure plan to safeguard the supply of EOS data.

Honestly, these key conclusions make you wonder why there is not a higher priority placed on solving these by the government. Perhaps the reason is that until now, there has not yet been a real understanding of the complete picture of Australia's EOS needs, or at least one as comprehensive as this.

It does present us with a sobering picture of the immediate need to address the access issues to the vital earth observation data that is used so widely within Australian governments.

A couple of other quotations from the report that I thought were worth highlighting:

At present, over 70 federal and state organisations regularly acquire and/or utilise EOS data from satellites controlled by China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Nigeria, UK, USA or the European Commission (Geoscience Australia, 2010).

There is currently no wholistic, national strategy on EOS to ensure that Australia’s data needs will be satisfied into the future, through access to available data sources and/or adequate archiving of current imagery for potential future use, nor is there any strategy to coordinate Australian involvement in international EOS related activities.

The ramifications of these projected data gaps would impact the Australian environment, population and economy, as well as Australia’s international credibility. The GDP contribution of the Australian EOS sector has been valued at $3.3 billion per annum (ACIL Tasman, 2010), with significant increases expected in future years. In light of the current government expenditure on remote sensing of approximately $100 million per annum (Geoscience Australia, 2010), this equates to a return on investment of more than 30 to one. The potential data gaps would jeopardise both current and future economic benefits derived from EOS in Australia.

Quite stunning numbers from an economic perspective - particularly a 30 to one return on investment, although on the flip side, we are potentially risking Billions by not addressing this issue. It also highlights to me that the Australian Government Space interest has essentially been 'drifting' up until the last few years, and that only now are we starting to appreciate the challenges and risks that we face. This is precisely why we need a whole of government approach to solve these issues, as having 70 different federal and state organisations do this independently is absurd.

One observation I do have on the report is that I am surprised that no mention is made of a possible Australian satellite to solve some of the data shortages. Such a satellite allows us to guarantee data continuity that is tailored to Australia's needs, and controlled by our government. It would be a very good way of managing the risks to EOS data, and we could also contribute back to those countries that continue to provide us EOS data.

Now I understand that this paper represents the 'User's needs' document, and doesn't aim to address how these needs should be solved - that is probably best done in a future infrastructure report or as a response to this paper. However, much attention is paid to potential agreements to secure access, so the possibility of a dedicated "Geoscience Australia" satellite could be considered.

Regardless, it is hard to go past the fact that Geoscience Australia has published a widely consulted, well prepared report that will be a strong input into the future Australian Space Policy.

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