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July Event Recap: Democratising Earth Observation by Making Smarter Satellites with Taofiq Huq

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Hosted 21st July 2021

To watch the recording of the whole event, click here.

Why should we venture out into space? What is the need for Earth observation? What are the problems with the satellite industry? In July’s event, these are all questions that Spiral Blue’s CEO Taofiq Huq pondered and insightfully answered for many people wondering the same thing.

Mr Taofiq Huq is Founder and CEO of Spiral Blue, where he leads a dynamic team of space engineers and data scientists on a quest to make Earth observation more accessible. Originally founded in 2017, Spiral Blue has recently launched the first of its Space Edge Computers to orbit and is now awaiting the results of this in orbit demonstration. Mr Huq is also Advisor for Sperospace, a space robotics startup, and holds a Bachelors in Aerospace Engineering from the University of New South Wales.

Why Space?

One question many people ask, especially in response to the phenomenon of billionaires going to space and the resulting backlash, is why do we need to do space? To some, with the countless problems civilisation and humanity faces on Earth, going to space seems like a silly endeavour when we should be focused on our home planet.

However, for many in the space industry, our first interests in space stem from astronomy, with galactic images and dazzling sights embedding a sheer wonder, excitement and interest in space. Going into space seems like a natural next big step for humanity, even if it seems almost unreachable for many.

(Image: Hubble Space Telescope image of the Ant Nebula Source: NASA)

Taofiq introduced what seemed like an even more unreachable goal; terraform planets. Terraforming is the idea of modifying the atmosphere, ecology, or any number of other aspects of a planet to imitate the Earth to make it habitable for Earth life. While this is a big dream for many people, even in science fiction, Taofiq took us a step back into history.

The Apollo program starting in 1961 that aimed to prepare and land the first humans on the Moon went from virtually nothing - technology out of World War II - to advanced technology such as computers, rocket engines and even velcro, which were developed due to America’s investment in the moon program. So, Taofiq postulated, with further investments into space development, the technologies that could come out of this could very well take us even closer to goals like terraforming planets, and the advancements that could subsequently arise.

“If we can terraform a planet and make it habitable for humanity and for earth’s ecosystem, imagine what that means for us and what we will be able to do for the earth.” - Taofiq Huq, CEO of Spiral Blue

The Need for Earth Observation

Taofiq followed with another history lesson, noting that the early history of Earth observation is essentially the history of war, with cameras on aircraft to detect enemy lines and see the location of key infrastructure.

(Image: Before and After the Hiroshima bombing. Source: Library of Congress)

While the Hiroshima images show a chilling image of humanity’s sheer destructive power, on the flip side, we should be able to have a similar impact positively, such as with environmental monitoring.

(Image: NDVI image comparison of vegetation in Britain in June vs. October. Source: Gennaro Cappelluti)

For example, these NDVI images on vegetation in Britain show that the plants in South East England are potentially those that don’t perform well in certain weathers, whereas the other green areas in October are more perennial plants.

Furthermore, Taofiq spoke about the need for Earth observation in relation to Earth Overshoot Day, which is the date when humanity’s yearly demand for ecological resources exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year; in 2021, it fell on July 29th. Tim Parsons spoke on this more during his January event, emphasising how unsustainable our current usage of 1.7 Earths per year is.

Essentially, Taofiq compared our situation to personal finances; if you were earning $100,000 per year, but spent $170,000 or more every year, you would go bankrupt - and right now, we are heading towards what we could call environmental bankruptcy.

“The real need for Earth observation is that we live on a single planet and we need to manage it better. It really is as simple as that.” - Taofiq Huq, CEO of Spiral Blue

In the face of these issues, Earth observation holds a significant key in developing new technologies and approaches to recover Earth’s rapidly declining resources over time. While it is not the ‘silver bullet’ by any means, “what is measured can be managed.”

What’s missing?

Currently, the Earth observation industry exists in three major layers in an operating stack; acquisition, dissemination and intelligence. These layers separate acquiring the satellite data, to providing the platforms and infrastructure, to finally converting the data for applications. However, despite the complexity and potential in collecting and using different types of data, the EO industry has remained relatively small and under-utilised, due to two key problems in Earth observation:

The Downlink Problem

(Image: Graphical representation of the downlink problem. Source: Spiral Blue)

Satellites are capable of collecting far more than they can send down, limiting the surveying area that a satellite covers. For example, a satellite may be able to cover 6 million km2 per day, but only be capable of returning 20,000km2 per day. As a result, high quality satellite images are often expensive, carry high minimum order quantities and can take weeks to deliver, limiting revenue potential, flexibility, and agility of these satellites.

The Insights Problem

(Image: Graphical representation of the insight problem Source: Spiral Blue)

While technical customers are happy to receive and apply complex data with their own methods, many potential commercial clients just want to know certain information and end user data, such as how much fertiliser they should use on their crops.To receive this information however, clients must additionally hire people to interpret and analyse data, which creates further barriers to affordability and accessibility.

Taofiq quoted Satellogic CEO Emiliano Kargieman who pointed out that space data is so expensive because the opportunity cost of a limited surveying area becomes the minimum cost of the data, which is transferred to the customers. However, with enough capacity so that enough data is being collected so that businesses are not missing out on opportunities for other customers, data can be priced at what it’s worth; the insights gathered, rather than the opportunity cost of acquisition. Data can be delivered to small farmers in India at an affordable price point, and appropriately adjusted for intelligence analysts in the Middle East as well.

With Spiral Blue’s Space Edge Computing, hardware is only one component of our product. Without accessibility, there are no benefits for the Earth observation users. In addition to our Space Edge Computers, we are creating software that will make satellite data accessible to commercial clients; Space Edge Services, a platform like an app-store where someone can access all the information that they need… as easily as anyone can use their phone to look up stock prices, the weather, or even dog photos.

About Spiral Blue

Spiral Blue is a Sydney SME focused on building the next generation of Earth observation services with artificial intelligence and Space Edge Computing. Spiral Blue technology has applications in defence, city planning, utilities, and other industries. Founded in 2018, the company has recently launched its first Space Edge Zero prototypes to orbit.

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