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February Event Recap: The Future of Earth Observation, with Dr. Tim Parsons

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

Hosted 24th February 2021

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

What is the future of Earth Observation?

In Spiral Blue’s first community event, this question was answered by the inspiring and brilliant Tim Parsons. Dr. Tim Parsons, the Chair of Smartsat CRC Aurora Startup Cluster is a veteran of product and start-up innovation within space, media tech and agriculture tech. Tim Parsons leads Australian NewSpace network Delta-V, while consulting widely for research organisations, tech-focused small and medium enterprises, start-up accelerators, and incubators. A passionate advocate of disruptive innovation and cross-ecosystem collaboration, Dr. Parsons dreams of looking down at the Earth from a space hotel. He holds a PhD in rarefied hypersonic flow simulation from Imperial College London.

The Past and The Present

Before we went into the future of Earth Observation (EO), Tim took us through the beginnings of EO. Taken by a V2 rocket after the war in 1946, the first image of the Earth is a ghostly and almost unidentifiable photo. After another image taken by a lunar orbiter in 1966, the first colour image was produced in 1968 by astronaut William Anders which Tim mentioned crystallises our idea of Earth as a finite planet.

“This crystallised this idea that is intrinsic in Earth Observation - that the Earth is a finite planet.” - Dr. Tim Parsons

Nowadays, images of the Earth are accessible through our everyday uses of Google Earth, providing extensive layers of information and data through EO. Below is an image of a presentation from NASA’s Dr. Sachidananda Babu, demonstrating the innovation of EO by using multiple spacecraft to obtain 3D imaging of rainfall inside of Hurricane Dorian, and track the hurricane using a constellation of EO satellites.

(Image: 3D imagery of Hurricane Dorian captured by CubeSat’s TEMPEST-D. Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA)

Another example that is increasingly relevant for Australia is NASA’s CALIPSO satellite, which took smoke layer measurements from our late 2019 - early 2020 bushfires and its movements across the atmosphere.

We may not realise it, but precision navigation and timing is already being used extensively in everyday life, from mobile GPS to timestamps from an ATM machine. These very specific and advanced visualisations help us make a myriad of decisions, from personal levels such as checking the weather for where to go, to financial and resource allocation decisions dictating investments of billions of dollars around the world.

Our Earth at Risk

With our current and expanding future opportunities, the future of EO is looking very promising… because our Earth is not. Tim brought us back to earth with the confronting realities of Earth’s sustainability and reminding us that Earth is a ‘finite planet’ . With only one Earth, we are currently using resources at a rate 1.6x greater than what the Earth can provide.

Introducing the seminal report Economics of Biodiversity by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Tim summarised a few eye-opening points:

  1. Our demand far exceeds the Earth’s capacity to supply us with all the goods and services we are relying on.

  2. Our unsustainable engagement with nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations.

  3. At the heart of these problems lie deep-rooted and widespread institutional failure, driven by a mindset of “growth without limits”. This ignores that fundamentally, there is a limit to the Earth and its resources.

A key concept surrounding Earth’s sustainability is understanding Earth’s planetary boundaries, and being able to measure them as well. However, our baseline datasets are significantly lacking, to measure key indicators of human impacts on the Earth such as methane emissions, the quality of freshwater or the rate of evaporation of our water bodies. Without these base data sets, there is no way to measure components such as the effects of climate change, human activity or potential policies to enact.

Another interesting economic model referenced is Kate Rayworth’s Doughnut Model (below), which presents the idea of a sustainable society restricted by an outer ecological ceiling.

(Image: Doughnut Economic Model developed by economist Kate Raworth. Source: Wikipedia)

This ecological ceiling is the upper limit of humanity’s environmental exploitation, which we are significantly exceeding. The interior of the model is humanity’s social foundations in regards to our operations and social equity. Between the interior and exterior is where humanity can thrive, but as we push the ecological boundary out, our social foundations will also suffer.

(Image: The village of Myar Zin in Myanmar, December 2017 vs. February 2018. Source: The Guardian)

This is unfortunately evidenced in the EO satellite images that show the destruction of the Rohingya villages in Myanmar, demonstrating the contention between the Myanmar people and the Rohingya people as a reflection of the impacted access to resources from water to arable land.

A Mindset for the Future

As we move forward to figure out a solution for this pervasive problem, we must reconsider and re-evaluate our approach and understanding of the world. If there is only one thing you remember from this event, it is the following:

The solution starts with understanding and accepting a simple truth: our economies are embedded within nature, not external to it.” - Dr. Tim Parsons

This conclusion drawn from Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta’s economic report challenges the traditional view of businesses impacting the environment, to businesses also being fundamentally dependent on the environment.

And in this realm, Earth Observation plays a critical role.

Drawing on his own experiences within the industry, Tim brought an example from one of his projects, Food Agility. This group partners with NAB and IAG, respectively Australia’s largest agricultural lender, and Australia’s largest environmental insurber. However, Earth currently has a pressing issue regarding an unsustainable food system, as Earth will need to support 10 billion people by 2050, without using more agricultural land and with lower emissions. Thus, as a result of massive climate variability, these companies need to mitigate the risks of loans to farmers. With emerging technology such as EO, key risk areas such as land, water and energy can be measured with data, and most of them can be baselined and continually assessed to help mitigate the risks for these industries.

(Image: Australia Industry Digitisation Index. Source: McKinsey&Company)

The above image of McKinsey’s Australian Industry Digitization Index (2017) outlines our current progress on industry digitisation. High digitisation industries include many knowledge-intensive industries such as financial and administrative services, with an abundance of opportunity in other relatively low digitisation industries ranging from service industries such as healthcare and arts, to sectors such as energy, mining and agriculture.

In particular, Tim emphasised that Australia is particularly well-positioned to address and solve some of the most pressing issues of today. Australia is responsible for one seventh of the world’s surface, comprises almost every single climatic zone, and has a significantly diverse variety of ancient soil types and biodiversity. As a result, any technology developed to baseline and assess Australian conditions and situations can be replicated in different and varying regions all over the world. Australia holds these crucial opportunities to incubate not only technologies but also policies, legal structures and circular economy structures which can then be ‘cut and pasted’ across the world. To further emphasise our abundance of opportunity, Australia’s favourable global prestige across the world allows us to insert ourselves into any conversation or opportunity across the world.

And as Tim stated - space will play an incredible role in capturing these opportunities.

At Spiral Blue, our mission is to democratise Earth Observation data with Space Edge Serves and streamline the process of managing and utilising the volume of EO data, making these opportunities available for everyone.

To wrap up with one of my favourite quotes from the event;

“We’ve only just begun.”

- Dr. Tim Parsons, on digitising the world.

Keep an eye out on our youtube channel, as we’ll be coming out with more event recordings soon!

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

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