Big Data: mining ‘new oil’ from space for use on Earth

Space technology acquires and generates significant amounts of data that can be put to use on Earth for a myriad of tasks, including a project to keep birds and aircraft apart


Engineer Towers exists in an open plan tundra inhabited by occasional naysayers yet to grasp the benefits of sending assets into orbit around Earth.

This is a pity, as Earth observation (EO), satellite communications (SATCOMs), and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) have cumulatively benefited businesses and enriched the lives of millions of people through, for example, establishing weather patterns that help aircraft optimise fuel consumption; linking otherwise disconnected and remote regions; or providing precise positioning and guidance (the naysayers might want to think about how their pictures are geo-tagged in Facebook).

These are just three broad areas in which significant quantities of data can be exploited on Earth, and ESA Business Applications are keen to hear from – and provide funding to – businesses that can monetise data acquired by space assets. So far, ESA Business Applications has enabled data from satellites to transform businesses on Earth with €200m invested in over 500 businesses.

Among them are AscendXYZ, a Danish company that has received support from ESA on its solution to mitigate against bird strikes on aircraft. AscendXYZ’s system integrates bird radar with Earth Observation data and is in use at Aalborg Airport in Denmark, where it is said to have more than halved the number of annual bird strikes.

Current approaches to bird strike mitigation are labour intensive, involve standalone systems, or require specialised human resources. The problem, however, is set to get worse as the demand for flights increases on aircraft that emit less noise.

Project ‘WAMMO’ can keep airlines – and passengers – aloft by adding ground radar data to the system. The solution introduces a real-time element and provides online knowledge about the airport surroundings to all stakeholders, including airport operators, on-the-ground workers, Civil Aviation Authorities and wildlife management.

According to ESA Business Applications, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and multispectral images help to monitor changes in the ecosystems and landscape, while Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite images monitor the airport’s surroundings and habitats. Satellite navigation (GPS or Galileo) is used in a tablet-based solution to guide bird controllers to areas with identified bird activity.

According to Arnaud Runge, a commercial pilot’s license holder and technical officer of the project at ESA, changes in bird activity are relayed to wildlife crew and actions taken in the field by the bird controllers are registered with geolocation information.

“With the radar data we can superimpose changes in bird behaviour on updated satellite images and use this information for analysis,” he said.

Peter Hemmingsen, CEO of AscendXYZ, added that Ascend – with the combination of radar tracking of birds and satellite monitoring of the airport surroundings – offers a new and unique solution for airport wildlife management.

“With analysis of historical radar data, weather forecast and other factors, we can quite accurately predict bird behaviour over the next 9-18 hours,” Hemmingsen said. “From an operational perspective this means you can now focus staff in high-risk periods. You can relay information to pilots to use in their pre-flight checks.”

Readers who use big data in their business can apply for funding to help develop their product or service. ESA Business Applications funds those who use space technology to enhance a certain sector.