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June Event Recap: Monitoring the Planet with Satellites, with Sebastian Chaoui

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Hosted 30th February 2021

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

How can we change the world with data?

In June’s Event with Arlula’s Sebastian Chaoui, Sebastian painted an exciting picture of how we can monitor the planet with satellites, and effectively change the world.

Sebastian Chaoui is the Cofounder and CEO of Arlula, an SME that provides a single point of access for a global network of satellite imagery. Sebastian is a serial space entrepreneur who was also the first Australian to launch a mission to the International Space Station in his previous company, Cuberider. As a result of his achievements, he has established a prominent profile within the growing Australian commercial space sector. His current venture, Arlula, aggregates a global network of satellite imagery suppliers through a single cloud based access point eliminating the need for multiple integration points, legal contracts, pricing, payment models and searches. Arlula is also a strong supporter of the international Earth observation community with partners including NASA, ESA, NSPO, Maxar and Spacewill.

How we can change the world

Sebastian started off the event emphasising the impact that satellite imagery can have on the Earth, not only improving our activities and conditions on Earth, but also preventing situations from happening. One situation in particular that stuck out in his mind was the Brumadinho disaster in Brazil, considered one of the worst environmental tragedies in Brazilian history.

(Image: Aftermath of the Brumadinho Dam Disaster. Source: Flickr)

Brazilian mining giant Vale had a mine deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle, with a tailing dam to store the toxic waste produced from the iron ore mine. However, in January 2019, the dam collapsed, causing a toxic torrent of mining waste to devastate almost 300 acres of the native forest, polluting 200 miles of the local Paraopeba River, and tragically killing 272 people. Its impacts spread further with the financial markets “going crazy”, and Vale had to pay US$7 billion in compensation.

“The kicker is that there was SAR imagery over that site… and you could have potentially been monitoring the fractures in the dam wall before it actually happened.”

- Sebastian Chaoui

As Sebastian stated, satellite imaging has an overwhelming potential to prevent these disasters from happening, saving the Earth from irreversible environmental impacts, human and financial loss.

So, what’s stopping us?

There are many obstacles facing Earth Observation firms especially in Australia, which are present throughout the space industry as well. The US$4 billion satellite imaging industry is “broken”, as entrenched industry practises make commercial and industry adoption of EO data difficult even though demand has almost doubled since 2019.

“We live in the 21st century, a world of APIs and instant deliveries. I could order a pizza on my phone right now but I can’t order a satellite image.” - Sebastian Chaoui

Fundamentally, obtaining and receiving satellite imagery is a bad user experience, forcing potential customers to use substitutes over inaccessible Earth observation data. Commercial customers most frequently demand high volumes of small imagery orders, which requires automated, scalable transactions and distribution. However, existing operators cannot cost effectively cater to these needs due to outdated technology and sales models, as procurement and transfer of satellite imagery is currently a fairly manual and troublesome process.

(Image: Satellite purchasing and obtaining process, Source: Sebastian Chaoui)

There is a largely untapped market of commercial customers overlooked by satellite operators, who traditionally focus on large contracts. This excludes smaller value clients who are making do with high amounts of free, lower quality data sources. There is a significant product divide here, in what Sebastian called a “no man’s land”, as he believed clients would move onto higher quality, paid sources if they were affordable enough.

“All of these problems are cutting out opportunities for new players... to solve new and interesting problems.” - Sebastian Chaoui

Breaking through these barriers

In the last section of Sebastian’s event, he spoke about how the space industry could break through these barriers by standardising access to make it accessible to users and app developers. This can be achieved by addressing three main accessibility issues in obtaining satellite imagery: technical access, legal access and usage rights, and the aggregation of data.

Firstly, we must automate the delivery of satellite imagery which is a fundamental data problem, and overhaul our current delivery methodologies. Secondly, user license agreements need to be solved before the space industry can continue to grow and create better value for the community. Finally, aggregating data is a complex problem that effectively requires competing satellite data companies to work together. While this is difficult, aggregating data will save time for customers who just want to find the data that suits their needs. For these customers, aggregating the data themselves can cost millions of dollars, from hiring business development teams to form relationships with satellite operators, to developing technical integrations for streamlining satellite data to the application’s point of ingestion.

It is imperative that the space industry solves these problems to drive change in the current Earth observation industry. In ending the event, Sebastian asserted that if the space industry can solve these problems as a community, the difference between what people were doing before to make do, compared to what people will be able to build in the future to solve “amazing and crazy” challenges around the world, will be unrecognisable.

Looking back at what avoidable tragedies could have been prevented, the incredible potential of the budding commercial Earth observation industry is really inspiring for everyone involved in the Earth observation space today.

“[The Brumadinho dam disaster] is a really, really great story that illustrates the power of satellite imagery, and how you CAN change the world with this kind of data.”

- Sebastian Chaoui

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, and is now awaiting results of this in-orbit demonstration.

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