France, Germany To Establish Imaging Research Center

by

The French and German space agencies have agreed to create a joint Earth-observation research center to prepare government and commercial customers for the coming high-resolution optical and radar imaging satellites that both nations are building.

The French space agency, CNES, and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, have agreed to contribute resources and personnel to what they are calling a Center of Competence, to be located in both France and Germany.

The two agencies have partnered with France’s ENST telecommunications academy, which includes a department that specializes in imagery treatment.

“With the satellites we have in orbit now and those that are on their way, there will be an overwhelming amount of data coming down that needs to be treated and analyzed,” said Gilbert Pauc of CNES. “We cannot expect to have enough people trained to cope with it all. The idea of this center is to create algorithms that will extract some of the information automatically.”

France’s 20-year-old Spot optical Earth observation program is currently based on the Spot 5 satellite, capable of generating images with a ground resolution of between 2.5 and 5 meters.

CNES has contracted with EADS Astrium and Alcatel Space to build the higher-resolution Pleiades satellites, expected to have a ground resolution of 1 meter or better.

Pleiades is a dual-use system whose images also will be sold by Spot Image of Toulouse, France — the same company that commercially markets today’s Spot satellite imagery.

In Germany, DLR and EADS Astrium’s German branch are co-financing construction of the TerraSAR radar observation satellite, whose 1-meter-resolution imagery will be used by government and commercial customers.

France and Italy have agreed to share data from Pleiades and from Italy’s Cosmo Skymed radar satellites, also to be used for military as well as civil and commercial purposes. Italy is not yet a partner in the Center of Competence, but Pauc said Italy may join later.

Mihai Datcu of DLR’s image interpretation center in Oberpffafenhofen, Germany, said developing ways to digest higher-resolution imagery will be key to developing a market for the product among government and other users.

“With the sharper-resolution satellites, you change the analysis from one of area recognition to one of object recognition,” Datcu said. “It’s a more complex environment, with a wider diversity of images. What we want to do is develop ways that users can find the information they want easily.”

Henri Maitre, deputy director of ENST of Paris, said the French-German center ultimately will have the equivalent of 10 full-time employees, in addition to graduate students specializing in data mining and image processing . The facilities will be located at CNES’s Toulouse, France, center; DLR’s Oberpfaffenhofen site; and ENST’s Paris campus.

“We have seen the Earth observation sector gradually shift from its historic concerns with meteorology, defense and agriculture toward newer applications such as risk assessment, refugee and population movement, land use and other areas,” Maitre said. “We need to be sure that the huge amount of data coming from tomorrow’s satellites can be made useful for these applications.”

Pauc said the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program being started by the European Space Agency and the European Commission likely will be an early application for the French-German center’s work.

“This is at the research level; we probably won’t have any concrete results for four or five years,” Pauc said. “And data assessment can never be made totally automatic. But we can begin the process.”