ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst captured this image of Earth from the International Space Station on June 21. Photo by: ESA/NASA

In 2017, Vietnam saw more than 180,000 cases of dengue fever. In November 2015, the collapse of a dam for storing mining waste in Brazil killed 19 people and caused what has been described as the country’s worst environmental disaster.

While these two crises may at first glance seem unrelated, they have at least some things in common: for one, they are viewed as the types of situation in which satellites could provide invaluable help in the future.

“Hazards don’t stop at countries’ borders.”

— Colm Jordan, team leader for Earth and planetary observation and monitoring, British Geological Survey and principal investigator, METEOR project.

Second, both issues have secured United Kingdom government funding. They are among a broad range of 10 projects selected for £38 million ($48 million) of funding for satellite projects by the UK Space Agency’s five-year International Partnership Programme in February 2018, following an earlier £70 million round of funding for 21 projects a year earlier.

HR Wallingford, a not-for-profit civil engineering and environmental hydraulics company, is leading both projects, one for an early warning system for dengue fever in Vietnam and the other for minimizing risks from the failure of tailings dams that store by-products from mining operations in Peru.

The other eight are led by a variety of organizations covering a broad array of areas — something UKSA views as important.

“We have a wide range of project topics, from predicting crop pest outbreaks to providing satellite communications in disaster zones to providing information to small islands on where to best place renewable energy assets,” said Chris Castelli, director of programs at UKSA. “As both the cost of satellite data reduces and the availability increases, satellites will become more and more important for developing countries.”

The country is seeking to put itself at the forefront of tackling some of the world's biggest challenges in this sector, with the U.K. seeking to grow its share of the global space market to 10 percent by 2030, up from about 6.5 percent in 2015.

UKSA believes there is an appetite for these projects based on the value of the bids so far: The IPP’s two calls since it launched in 2015 have attracted about 100 bids worth £650 million, according to Castelli, already more than four times the value of the £152 million program.

“Rigorous” monitoring and evaluation of projects by UKSA will ensure impacts are being delivered and taxpayers’ money is being used effectively, Castelli said, while the projects are held to account by UKSA’s partners Caribou Space, a part of consultancy Caribou Digital with expertise in the space field. He highlighted the widespread impact IPP projects could have, estimating that it will benefit 7 million people in 29 countries and directly support 10 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Keeping things going

Aside from providing value for money, one of the key criteria for choosing the projects is that they focus on long-term sustainability so they have the potential to continue once UKSA funding ends.

“If the projects deliver a successful solution, we hope that either the end user will take the solution forward or an alternative model will be found — either via a commercial model or external funding source,” Castelli said. The projects all emphasize their strong networks of both local and international partners and relationships, in order to have a variety of avenues for keeping them going.

For HR Wallingford, the relationships that the organization established with both the U.N. Development Programme and the World Health Organization in Vietnam provided connections into the Vietnamese Ministry of Health and research organizations, such as the country’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology.

The project’s aim is to develop satellite-related tools to enable dengue alerts to aid Vietnam’s public health authorities. Darren Lumbroso, technical director for water management at HR Wallingford, explained how the early-warning system could have a “very high-cost benefit,” with a fairly low outlay for running it — estimating that it could ultimately cost the Vietnamese government between $10,000-30,000 per year, but save the government millions of dollars in the long run. He pointed out, however, that the exact numbers are hard to predict at this early stage — and before more detailed discussions with the government.

Another factor that makes the projects appealing for funding is their broader applicability to other countries and scenarios — applying the Vietnam case to the Zika virus, for example.

Lumbroso said the tailings dam initiative, which has £2.7 million of IPP funding for its three-year duration, could be expanded to other countries with big mines, such as Chile. The system aims to use satellites to track movements in dams on a millimeter scale to predict potential failures.

“The idea of Peru was to provide a method to monitor those structures, and also a method for third parties, civil society organizations, and governments to monitor multinationals’ tailings dams remotely,” Lumbroso said. HR Wallingford thinks it could ultimately be operated as a tiered service, whereby money gained from parties signing up to the system might fund lower tiers of the service for local government agencies that don’t have much budget.

Flexible alternatives

Another project called ACCORD, led by space company Earth-i, is using satellites to help smallholder coffee farmers in Kenya and Rwanda improve their crop quality and yield by monitoring the land so to gauge crop health and work out how to make it better.

“IPP funding enables us the leeway to explore more flexible alternatives to the costly imagery that tends to ‘price out’ viable services for developing countries,” said Richard Blain, founder and CEO of Earth-i. “To achieve this, Earth-i has built strategic relationships with many global satellite operators to ensure a very cost-effective data supply.”

Without the funding, Blain said, Earth-i, and its partners would not have been able to provide its service at a suitable scale of up to 50,000 smallholder coffee farmers in Kenya and Rwanda. “The project scope would be much smaller and take many more years to deploy,” Blain said.

A common theme brought up by the different projects is the recent acceleration in free and openly accessible satellite data, helping to make initiatives more economical and sustainable.

For instance, one partner in the METEOR disaster-management project in Nepal and Tanzania, led by the British Geological Survey, is the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, which dedicates itself to providing free and open mapping that other initiatives can use and build on.

In METEOR’s case, this involves combining its own satellite-based information on risks from hazards such as earthquakes and landslides, including in villages and communities outside the main urban centers, with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s substantial data on building and population footprints in other areas.

“We’re seeing how we can integrate and use their information to help make our results better,” said Colm Jordan, team leader for Earth and planetary observation and monitoring at the British Geological Survey and principal investigator for the METEOR project.

The plan is for the British Geological Survey to co-design and build tools such as hazard maps and exposure data with local partners, so it has the capacity to keep updating them over said. Instead, he said, they are people British Geological Survey wants to work with to embed these ideas.

To aid with this, the project will offer facilities such as workshops and training courses to ensure far more than just technology provision. There are also commercial companies in the project countries that are keen to learn from these ideas and could later sell their expertise to parties such as NGOs and governments.

Lighting the way

For METEOR, the aim is for the system to later be rolled out to all 48 least-developed official development assistance countries, with Nepal and Tanzania acting as “lighthouse” countries. One extra advantage of satellites is that they offer transnational access, which can be important, Jordan said, “hazards don’t stop at countries’ borders.”

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It’s also about having “local champions” capable of winning funding in their own countries and from multilateral development banks to keep things going if the original international partners do not do it, Jordan said.

“There’s an important future for satellites in developing countries, particularly given the inexorable demands on digital,” said James Cemmell, vice president of government engagement at Inmarsat. The organization has used ODA for satellite projects involving fishing in Indonesia, disaster response in the Philippines, and health care in Nigeria.

At the Our Ocean conference in Bali, Indonesia, at the end of October, Inmarsat reinforced its commitment to maritime safety and reducing the digital divide at sea. With more than 200,000 vessels relying on Inmarsat’s service, satellite technology can be crucial in such scenarios, Cemmell said. “It can deliver best value for money and highest-impact social outcomes in specific situations.”

In the U.K., a third funding round for satellites under IPP is expected to take place early next year — though UKSA said it was too early to talk about future approaches and that evaluation of the current project line-up would help inform its strategy over time.

Cemmell thinks the future focus for satellite projects is where space systems can play a “unique” role that cannot be performed otherwise, such as when providing the only option for people fishing in the middle of the sea or in an acute stage of a disaster.

Now, with more data, mature technology, and evidence of how lives have been saved on the ground as satellite usage has become more “real world,” it helps further hone ODA targeting, Cemmell said.

“The IPP is a very effective intervention to support recipient countries, whilst leveraging U.K. expertise in satellite applications,” he said, adding that if used effectively, satellite technology has real potential to be transformative and save lives.

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