Data distribution drive launches Copernicus into next decade of growth

Baveno, Lake Maggiore (Glenda Thisdell)

23 June 2018

Europe’s Copernicus Earth observation programme has taken a leap into the data economy – and opened a European front in the so-called “new space” economy – with the formal launch of a new scheme for simplifying access to its vast trove of images. Data from Copernicus’ Sentinel satellites and ground-based sensors is now available to users through five new Data and Information Access Services – or DIAS – which provide one-source access to a searchable catalogue of imagery and measurements. In keeping with the Copernicus free, full and open data policy, access and download is free of charge – but the DIAS consortia are private companies which will also provide cloud-based storage and other data management or analysis services on pay-per-use or subscription bases.

Speaking at an event in Baveno, on the shore of Italy’s Lake Maggiore, to mark the 20th anniversary of the meeting there that proposed the creation of what is today the Copernicus programme, European commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska said the vast quantity of data coming from Copernicus was a barrier to use by entrepreneurs, small companies and start-ups. DIAS, she said, would “revolutionise” data access and use: “With this, Copernicus fully enters the data economy in Europe and globally. This is a crucial initiative to make sure that all users…can enjoy a seamless access to Copernicus data.”

Elżbieta Bieńkowska: DIAS “is a total change of mindset in Europe – it is our first attempt at a European new space” (European Commission)

Bieńkowska, commissioner for the internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs, noted that Copernicus generates 10 petabytes of data annually, and users are downloading 42 petabytes – but to be useful, raw data needs to be transferred, stored and processed, which requires a robust, high-performance information and communications technology system. The cost of that, she said, is “not sustainable” for smaller companies and start-ups that want to innovate and develop services based on that data.

So, DIAS is a “unique combination of access to free, full and open data with a flexible pay per use ICT infrastructure”. The Commission has contracted each of the five DIAS consortia for three years, and will provide them a total of €15 million of “seed money” over up to five years, but they are expected to supplement their basic data distribution function with paid-for services.

“With this today we are laying the foundation on which new businesses can build value-added services and new applications. And, the way we approach this is a total change of mindset in Europe, in the sense that it is our first attempt at a European new space” as laid out in the Commission’s recently-published space strategy.

With DIAS, she said, “we are trying to change the data management paradigm.” The Copernicus programme has to now been focussed on getting satellites into orbit and establishing an infrastructure rather than on the “user experience and data handling. So with the DIAS we are precisely addressing that gap.”

Earth observation through Copernicus – originally GMES, for Global Monitoring for Environmental Security, but rebranded in 2012 – is a flagship European project which, alongside satellite navigation (Galileo) and access to space (the Ariane and Vega launcher programmes), is deemed by Brussels to be a strategically critical capability. Determination to maintain independent capability in space is evidenced in the latest European Commission budget proposal for the 2020-2027 “multi-annual financial framework period” of some €16 billion, including €9.7 billion for Galileo and €5.8 billion for Copernicus, with an eye to developing second generation systems for both. The next phase of the Horizon research and development grant scheme is separate but much of its work supports navigation or Earth observation.

Given the changing geopolitical landscape, Bieńkowska is clear that Europe needs to independently monitor the planet, whether to support its political leaders in fighting climate change or to track the environmental changes that drive migration and conflict. In Baveno, she observed that security and defence are “not completely new but growing” sectors: “Space is really the enabler of the synergies between those domains. We will have to discuss how Copernicus can make an even greater contribution to the security agenda of the EU.” Indeed, just a year after the concept was formulated in 1998, the GMES name was adjusted, to stand for Global Monitoring for Environment and Security.

That reality was underscored by Josef Aschbacher, who heads the Earth observation directorate at the European Space Agency (and whose predecessor, Volker Liebig, was a signatory of the Baveno manifesto in 1998). Aschbacher stressed that studying the “causes and effects” of climate change will be a fundamental focus of what is being informally dubbed “Copernicus 2.0”, a series of perhaps six missions being considered to follow the launch of Sentinel 6, which will complete the initial Sentinel series and is scheduled for launch in 2020. Those six missions, he says, are being planned around three themes: CO2, the arctic and food security.

For CO2, he told Geoconomy, the objective is to make sufficiently accurate measurements to distinguish between natural and anthropogenic sources. In the arctic, he added, one motivation for improved monitoring is to respond to the anticipated geopolitical scramble for resources which have historically been inaccessible owing to ice cover. Food and water security, he said, is linked to migration.

Another driver of a Copernicus 2.0 focus on CO2 and other greenhouse gasses comes from the Paris agreement on climate change. As Alain Ratier, director general of the European satellite meteorology service Eumetsat, told delegates to the Baveno gathering, monitoring greenhouse gas emissions with satellite and in-situ sensors and Earth system modelling is a way of delivering information to Paris agreement signatories and other policy- and decision-makers. Critically, he said, such monitoring is not about verification – rather, reliable information is a tool for cohesion. To that end, Europe needs an autonomous monitoring system.

LONG-TERM ACTION

Those security-related emphases speak directly to the underlying motivations for conceiving and sustaining the Copernicus programme, and for recognising these obligations the European Commission deserves no small credit. Andreas Veispak, an official with DG GROW – the shorthand name for Bieńkowska’s Brussels directorate – told the Baveno gathering that the core purpose of Copernicus was to support policy making, with reliable and continuous information. The public sector, he said, must do what the private sector won’t do, which is to gather data on a long-term basis. By long-term, Veispak is talking “50 to 100 years”.

To that end, he said, the Sentinels are the “big reference missions”.

The importance of doing what the private sector won’t – or can’t – do must be considered broadly. As Veispak noted, Copernicus is associated with some €100 billion of economic benefits expected to accrue by 2035 – but that’s not counting a “huge unknown value” linked to activity that hasn’t yet been envisioned. Meanwhile, he said, the public sector has to deliver because the private sector needs certainty.

Veispak’s “unknown” multiplier effect, then, might perhaps be thought of as the “new space” economy. Addressing those who wonder why Europe isn’t creating its own versions of the high-visibility private sector space firms operating in the USA, Bieńkowska is adamant that while private sector money is increasingly important, the public sector will stay on the scene. It is, she says, a question of finding the right balance – and recognising that, contrary to so many people’s assumptions, the high-visibility American success stories are operating in a space industry environment awash with public money.

Jan Wörner, who as director general of the European Space Agency heads the organisation on which the Commission relies to plan, deliver and often operate the space-based segments of programmes like Copernicus and Galileo, is clearly somewhat frustrated by assumptions that Europe does not do “new space”.

“It’s not either-or, it’s both. We can combine,” said Wörner. The question of satellite capability is much-discussed at ESA, he said, and small satellites of the type built by private operators do not, at least yet, provide the same performance as “mainline” satellites like the Sentinels – but they are complementary. And, he added, there is some talk of buying private-sector data into Copernicus. To entrepreneurs, he said, his advice is “just do it” – because public sector money is always there in support.

In that context, the DIAS programme is a particularly modern notion of new space. As Bieńkowska put it, these are private companies – and they can fail.

The DIAS need to be creative, then. For his part, Veispak sees DIAS as just a start towards building a new way of accessing data. Copernicus ground segment operations must adapt and strengthen, and speed of distribution is increasingly important, as is giving users the ability to combining data from space and other sources.

Ultimately, said Veispak, the value of Copernicus is not as a “monosource” of data, but as part of the data economy more broadly.