Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data presents a huge opportunity for environmental mapping applications due to the measurements it can make and because, unlike optical Earth Observation (EO) data, SAR is unaffected by cloud cover or lack of sunlight. However, making the most effective use of SAR data for specific applications is still a challenge, requiring large-scale processing, analysis and interpretation.
The UK is very advanced in this field and therefore opportunities exist for international collaborations to develop capacity and capability in other countries, and then to work together with them on collaborative ventures, both in that nation and further afield.
Funding from the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Space Programme (IPSP) has allowed the Satellite Applications Catapult to work with partners in Australia to develop a sustainable, collaborative programme based initially around the use of SAR data which it is hoped will lay foundations for future opportunities in the wider Asia-Pacific region. In parallel, the partners have been working on a high performance, multidimensional database – a ‘data cube’ – for SAR data. They are also showcasing the potential of collaboration and of SAR technology through three projects in the agriculture, forestry and water sectors.
- Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
- Geoscience Australia (GA)
- Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI)
Historically, Australia and most countries in the Asia-Pacific region have lacked the large-scale SAR processing and analysis capability required to fully benefit from newly launched operational SAR satellites such as Sentinel-1, part of the Copernicus programme. What capability there is in Australia is largely held within State Governments.
However, Australia has a high level of scientific capability and an excellent record for global outreach and partnerships. In addition to this its geographical location allows it to act as a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region where potential SAR applications and markets are numerous, creating a significant opportunity to establish formal partnerships with Australian partners within a defined framework.
The Catapult is developing a collaborative framework with three leading Australian science and innovation groups: the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Geoscience Australia (GA) and the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI). Together they will promote and showcase the opportunities afforded by SAR data to governments and businesses, particularly in the natural resources, environmental and agricultural sectors, in order to stimulate those markets.
The technical solution the Catapult is developing has been aptly termed the ‘SARCube’. The SARCube applies the concept of a ‘data cube’ to a large collection and ongoing stream of SAR data from Sentinel-1. The concept was developed in collaboration with the Australian research community to build upon their experience gained creating an optical data cube that stores Landsat data acquired over the past 30 years.
In a data cube the data is stored and managed as a multi-dimensional array, enabling any geographical point to be visualised as a time series of information about that particular location. The benefits of managing and displaying data in that way are that data can be explored to see changes in any aspect – such as land cover, water surface area or agriculture. Over time these layers can be compared and analysed to provide information to support decision making.
Any technical solution needs to be demonstrated to prove it works, and so three demonstration projects were identified, covering agriculture (sugarcane and wheat), forestry monitoring (land cover) and water resource monitoring. The development work on the way that SARcube processes and ingests (takes in) SAR data for the three showcase projects will be complete by the end of May.
Thanks to funding from IPSP, this programme demonstrates that collaborative crossborder partnerships can be highly complementary and lead to the acceleration of both service development – in this case a SARcube – and delivery to the market, and allow market access to both partners that may otherwise be difficult to accomplish.
Outcomes & Future
All partners are keen to continue with further collaboration; the extent of which will be determined by future funding. The relationships developed already allow UK SMEs to be put in touch with potential partners in Australia and vice versa, and many other opportunities have been identified.
The SARcube solution developed through the project will be a powerful way for users to access and interrogate SAR data, although it requires further work to create a truly user-friendly interface: this work was not within the scope of the original IPSP project but the Catapult is producing mock-ups to demonstrate how such interfaces could appear for different applications. Then, for each new application it will need to be adapted to ingest relevant datasets in the most appropriate and efficient way. The Catapult is looking forward to taking both aspects forward as soon as possible.
For the individual demonstrator projects, existing datasets have been used to prove the benefits of the collaborative programme. They have also shown the capabilities of the latest radar satellite sensors, the usefulness of incorporating Analysis Ready Data (ARD) into a specific service and the overall potential of a service based on a high performance computing infrastructure. The results of engagement with stakeholders in the projects is being fed back into the build of the SARcube.