HiVE microsatellite constellation to provide early crop-health monitoring

At a ceremony today at ESA’s ESRIN establishment, German company constellr signed a contract extension to design, develop and customer-validate its HiVE solution with ESA InCubed technical and financial support. Through the development of a microsatellite with an innovative Thermal Infrared (TIR) payload, HiVE will place advanced-warning data on crop stress at the fingertips of agribusiness companies, smart-farm operators and government policy makers.

Traditional approaches to measuring crop water-stress conditions include monitoring irrigation systems, indirect measurement of field temperatures, or aerial remote sensing of temperature via drones, all of which have drawbacks. Satellite remote sensing is available, but generally relies on optical imaging of leaf colour changes, meaning that at the time of detection irreversible crop damage has probably already occurred. Thermal infrared satellite measurements, which eliminate these drawbacks, are however becoming increasingly available.

constellr GmbH, a New Space start-up with offices in Freiburg and Brussels, saw an opportunity to provide immediate monitoring of crop health through specifically created TIR Earth observation satellites. By directly measuring leaf temperature from space, changes in plant transpiration can be spotted so that farmers can take remedial action days or weeks before critical crop deterioration ensues. constellr’s HiVE (High-resolution VEgetation monitoring) system will encompass a constellation of microsatellites with miniaturised TIR sensors in combination with a global ground-station-as-a-service infrastructure and cloud-based data platform. HiVE’s toolset will give both commercial and institutional customers actionable insights on crop conditions, helping to reduce the risk of crop loss and improve yield predictions.

The HiVE development is technically supported and partially funded by the ESA InCubed programme. At the contract extension signing today, constellr CTO Marius Bierdel commented on the significance of the investment: “Supported by the technical expertise and funding of InCubed, constellr is able to expedite the development of its first commercially operational satellite. This is a critical early part of our rapid infrastructure development cycle – a major driver for our competitiveness in the market and the key to bringing us a step closer to being a successful player in the space ecosystem.”

The German National Delegation to ESA was also represented at the meeting. “HiVE is the largest investment that we have made so far within InCubed,” explained Michael Nyenhuis, InCubed Programme Coordinator at the German Space Agency at DLR. “Given the current global issues of drought and food shortages, today’s launch of this development initiative is particularly timely, and we are sure that the final product will have a decisive role in optimising future irrigation management and biomass output.”

“This is a great example of how ESA can aid private-sector advances on solutions to climate problems and support a promising business initiative relevant to the agribusiness sector,” added ESA Director of Earth Observation Programmes Simonetta Cheli. “The technical support and business advice from ESA will undoubtedly provide an essential springboard for constellr in its journey to mission readiness and ultimately the delivery of this crucially important service.”

To know more: constellr, ESA InCubed, DLR

Strengthening InCubed’s role in commercial Earth observation

Commercialisation is universally recognised as essential for the future prosperity of all aspects of the European space sector, and Earth observation is no exception. The ESA InCubed programme, a co-funding initiative that helps entrepreneurs bring their innovative ideas to market, has enjoyed enormous success since the launch of its first activity in 2018 and continues to make a prodigious contribution to commercial Earth observation. The InCubed portfolio includes around 60 activities, with an impressive €63 million invested so far.

At the upcoming ESA Council at Ministerial Level, Member States will have the possibility to further empower InCubed in its far-reaching efforts to foster commercial innovation. The programme proposal makes the case for a wider remit, including a set of new ‘Invest Actions’ designed to help boost the European Earth observation economy and reinforce relationships with the private investor community.

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InCubed initiatives focus on data quality improvement and change monitoring

Three activities launched under co-funding from the ESA InCubed programme respond to customer needs for improved information quality and precise measurement of trends and variations by exploiting Earth observation (EO) assets. Targeted sectors include agri-food, environmental protection, mining and oil and gas.

NEO (NL): SINERGI service

Earth observation data from optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensors provides a wealth of information for an ever-increasing number of business applications, but there is often a lack of verification of such data from other sources. Dutch company NEO is developing SINERGI, a novel service that improves reliability by combining EO-derived change detection with crowd-sourced data and publicly available information.

NEO Chief Operating Officer Jan Erik Wien explains: “SINERGI represents a major step forward in the fusion of satellite and non-space data. It uses semantic integration technologies to add validation and additional context to EO-based information services, enabling customers to make informed and data-driven decisions in their operations and helping them to meet their ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] commitments. Typical Big Data pools feeding into SINERGI might include local government records, planning permission documents or even social media posts.”

The intended customer segments for the service vary from governing authorities in areas such as construction, forestry law enforcement and environmental inspection, to private-sector businesses like insurance companies. SINERGI has now completed its main development and is being piloted with customers in the fields of building-related information and invasive plant species in waterways.

ABACO (IT): FIbEO product

Another example of fusing EO and ground-based data is FIbEO, a product conceived by the ABACO group and aimed at the food production industry. “We recognised a gap in the market in terms of information availability for guaranteeing food quality,” says ABACO Project Manager Marco Bonfigli. “For a given crop, agricultural players need to understand current biomass status, have access to intelligent yield estimates and be able to cross-check compliance with specifications. The FIbEO platform will provide such aggregated insight through ML [Machine Learning] algorithms that draw on both satellite imagery and historical data, ultimately helping growers, consortia and control bodies to create trustworthy food supply chains.”

The first target segment for FIbEO is viniculture, with collaboration currently ongoing with growers in Italy’s Chianti region. The first release of the platform will enable wineries not only to predict output but also to identify dead vines in the field in near-real time.

TRE Altamira (IT): BulletInSAR service

Turning once again to the topic of change detection through SAR sensing, Copernicus Sentinel-1 and other radar imaging constellations enable mm-accurate displacements of the Earth’s surface to be measured from space, providing invaluable information to operators in sectors such as mining, energy, civil engineering and civil protection agencies. TRE Altamira already provides customers with remote sensing ground-deformation information on their assets of interest, but the satellite data stream currently requires significant human processing in order to produce actionable end-user reports.

Feedback from TRE Altamira’s clients identified the requirement for faster response times, greater capacity for monitoring multiple assets and supplementary details on measurement reliability. BulletInSAR is the company’s solution, a tool that will deliver timely, scalable deformation reports by adopting an ML-based unsupervised process to cut out the human bottleneck.

Alessandro Ferretti is the company’s CEO: “Innovation and pushing the technology envelope have always been key elements of TRE Altamira’s identity, and BulletInSAR is no exception. As development gets underway, we’re really pitching for a superior user experience, a solution that will deliver fully automated reports using a cloud-hosted interface with tailored results screening. Co-funding from InCubed is of course a powerful enabler for TRE Altamira, helping to propel us forward as we take market-driven SAR ground-displacement reporting to the next level.”

ESA InCubed Officer Piera di Vito continues the theme: “All three of these activities are a perfect fit for InCubed’s DNA: supporting innovative ideas that spot a commercial need for AI-driven, EO-sourced data and insight. We are proud to see and help sustain such a competitive and dynamic ecosystem in the Earth observation domain, and the fact that SINERGI, FIbEO and BulletInSAR are at different stages in their development amply demonstrates the end-to-end nurturing that InCubed provides, from concept through to market readiness.”

To know more: SINERGI, FIbEO, BulletInSAR

Copernicus Sentinel-1A image courtesy of ESA/DLR Microwaves and Radar Institute/GFZ/e-GEOS/INGV–ESA SEOM INSARAP study, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO