UK-Australia co-investment to enhance Earth observation for agriculture
As the Space Bridge partnership between the UK and Australia enters its second year, scientists in both countries are ramping up their collaboration with a view to jointly fund Earth observation technology that will have a long-term impact on agriculture.
A world first, the Space Bridge enhances co-operation between the UK and Australian space sectors to work on space-related activities, from sharing Earth observation data to collaborating on robotic and artificial intelligence.
The partnership is a priority for the UK space sector, which was further bolstered by the UK’s recent £1m commitment for Earth Observation in Agroclimate to help farmers deal with climate change.
Earlier this year a team from the UK’s Global Research Innovation Partnership (GRIP) program, led by UKRI’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, visited Australia to meet with a cross-section of Earth observation and agricultural R&D stakeholders, with a view to the two countries co-investing in space research. As it applies to issues such as farm mapping, measuring above-ground biomass, bodies of water, climate and disaster forecasting and remote sensing.
“The beauty of Earth observation instruments is that we can take really long, uninterrupted datasets of the surface of the earth over decades. By observing land surface change, we can potentially and hopefully adapt our agricultural practices to a changing climate,” explained GRIP team leader and Earth observation scientist, Dr Hugh Mortimer.
Deep thinking needed for integrated programs
“Australia and the UK share so much in terms of historical context, but to set up an effective bilateral science program we have to have this kind of deep thinking about what the researchers need, what the farmers may need, and the funding landscape, so that we have strong integrated programs that benefit both countries,” said Dr Mortimer.
Dr Alex Held serves as the CSIRO Principal on the International Committee on Earth Observation Satellites, and hosted Dr Mortimer and the GRIP team. He said Australia is a relative newcomer in terms of building, launching and operating observation satellites that have climate and agriculture applications.
“Global collaboration with the UK will give us the opportunity to explore new applications from satellite data and deliver a massive boost to our capacity and learning, to the point where we can build our own satellites and launch from Australia,” said Dr Held.
“While the UK space sector is larger and more mature in many respects, collaboration will help create new connections not just between research communities but companies, too, that want to support our domestic industry for satellite applications in agriculture.”
Australian researchers direct satellite for first time
Five years ago, CSIRO purchased a 10 percent share of time on the Earth observation satellite, NovaSAR-1, developed by Surrey Satellite Technology in the UK. The satellite can take images of the Earth through all weather conditions, including heavy cloud and smoke, offering a valuable data advantage to the many industries now harnessing the estimated $2.5 billion in economic benefits from the Earth observation sector.
In July 2021, CSIRO called for applications from Australian researchers to direct the satellite, marking the first time Australia has managed its own source of Earth observation data.
“This allows us to take images over areas that we’re interested in for research or disaster applications and downlink the data directly into Australian satellite receiving stations, which is much faster and enables emergency managers to use it as part of early warning programs or recovery,” explained Dr Held.
“It’s really fantastic to have a satellite that we can task and we want to grow that experience with the UK. We haven’t discussed another satellite in great detail but it would be good to see if there’s an appetite for developing a bilateral program that uses not just existing data, but maybe invests in building the technology.”
Expense of space research requires joint thinking
Until now both the UK and Australia have tended to collaborate on a project-by-project basis, but Dr Held said current discussions are focused on moving to a larger ‘umbrella’ or encompassing research program to coordinate the work, potentially with larger pools of funding for complementary programs.
Dr Mortimer agrees that rather than requiring new funding, a UK-Australia collaboration may just be a matter of coordinating research in a more holistic way.
“Space is expensive. On average, every kilogram of mass you send into space costs about £10,000 or roughly $AUD20,000, so the majority of the budget on missions is just getting that instrument into space and making sure it’s built in a really robust and rigorous way.
“It’s really difficult for one nation to foot that bill alone. The question is, how can we leverage support from Australia’s research communities, the farmers, the researchers, the university sector and commercial organisations, to come and develop something that’s massively impactful, that can make significant change in the area of agriculture and climate which are huge global challenge areas?”
Carbon credits potential area for collaboration
Dr Alex Held is also Mission Lead for AquaWatch Australia, a ground-to-space national water quality monitoring system to safeguard freshwater and coastal resources that he said could have application in the UK. AquaWatch consists of an extensive network of Earth observation satellites and ground-based sensors placed throughout Australia’s rivers and waterways that deliver real-time updates, predictive analytics and forecast warnings to water managers.
“Another potential area of collaboration is carbon credits. We can use satellite imagery to help track specific plantations or plantings to see whether they’re capturing carbon efficiently, to help both countries achieve their obligations under net zero. We have a lot to learn from each other and there is still a lot of research to be done,” said Dr Held.
He cites the emergence of NewSpace, a huge ecosystem of smaller companies launching many more satellites into space, as another factor to watch in the development and application of Earth observation technology in agriculture.
Expect more satellites as space becomes cheaper
“Access to space is becoming cheaper and cheaper so you’ll see a lot more companies becoming involved. I think there’s a prediction of 3,000 new satellites being sent up in the next 10 years by startups and new companies,” said Dr Held.
“For the last 50 years we have been developing experience and expertise in processing the data for key applications in agriculture, so we are well placed. We’re starting from a lower base because our space industry is in its early stages but leveraging off new partnerships and relationships with companies in the UK will give us a massive boost, to a level that will make us globally competitive.”
Dr Mortimer agrees.
“We are really interested in understanding what the needs and priorities are for Australian communities and also to work out which other international partners could be brought into these programs as well, such as New Zealand or the Pacific Islands.
“The GRIP program has now finished but we are working really hard behind the scenes to achieve another phase of the international scientific program for the UK and Australia.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the GRIP program and CSIRO’s Earth observation work, or want to get involved in other research activities and potential funding programs, please contact Dr Hugh Mortimer via email here or Dr Alex Held via email here.