Op-ed | The golden age of European Earth observation
In the past two decades, European priorities for space have had a clear focus: not about a race to space, but about making what we do in space relevant to humans down on Earth. Last month, the world watched as Europe launched their latest satellite, Sentinel-5p, making the Copernicus program fully operational and collecting terabytes of data per day. When coupled with the operational Galileo program — Europe’s position, navigation and timing constellation — Europe has realized its two-decade goal of an independent Earth observation program for the environment and security, turning the page to begin the golden age of European Earth observation.
The timing of this next chapter in Europe’s story in space is auspicious, with these large, strategic programs reaching their peak coincident with the growth of new commercial ventures. In 2017, more than 100 Earth observation satellites were launched in a single year, the first time this has ever happened. Hundreds of satellites provide concrete social, scientific and economic benefits to billions of individuals. This is truly a global sensing revolution coming from the commercial space sector, with miniaturization and mass production of satellites complemented by the data computation and analytic ecosystem to build novel commercial products. The European Commission is now setting its sights on realizing the greatest benefit that can come from these signals for society, from treaty verification to disaster response. With forward-leaning policies to make these data a global, public good, Europe is stimulating commercial uptake of these information feeds and creating a context aware application market.
Europe is an ideal geography for this to take root. According to the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies, there are over 450 European companies in the Earth observation sector generating over €900 million ($1.05 billion) per year in revenue (and this is before the Sentinel data was turned on.) Of these, 63 percent are companies that have less than 10 employees and 96 percent are companies that have less than 50 employees. Small businesses are where jobs are stimulated, experimentation thrives and innovation emerges. To encourage a shift in opportunities for these companies to grow, Europe has set up the Copernicus Masters Challenge to allow for small businesses and entrepreneurs to showcase their prototypes and commercial products.
Furthermore, the European Space Agency, executing on behalf of the European Commission, has created the Data and Information Access Service initiative to encourage companies to create the platform necessary to process the core remote sensing data to make it easier for new entrants in remote sensing to build applications. Additionally, the most recent solicitations are driving a shift toward procuring commercial services as opposed to setting specific, non-commercial requirements. This can lead to the development of a truly commercial ecosystem around both publicly and commercially available Earth information feeds from space.
Europe has the second largest space budget in the world (EU, ESA and member states combined), and with the speed of innovation we are seeing in commercial space, now is a new time for the public and private sectors to cooperate, support each other’s goals, and grow the economy. The emerging commercial space sector plays a unique role in driving technological advancement by accepting more risk, creating novel space architectures and focusing on commercial services utilizing an end-to-end space-to-product development. Moreover, the commercial space sector is increasingly becoming an actor in international affairs, providing policy recommendations, access to top technology and services and products to supplement public resources.
The right conditions should be created not only for the growth of European companies, but also to attract foreign companies to establish themselves and scale up in Europe. This investment in a commercial market will help the region differentiate its global posture and reinvigorate its indigenous industrial base. Europe has the policy, programs, innovators and market to become a world leader in fostering space technologies for environmental and emergency purposes. By understanding how it can shift some of its space portfolios to buy commercial, operational services, while focusing on further-out flagship scientific and exploration missions, the region will position itself as a leader in the commercial space market and kick off a golden age of European Earth observation.
Robbie Schingler is co-founder and chief strategy officer of Planet US and managing director of Planet EU. Agnieszka Łukaszczyk is director of EU policy at Planet.