Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 57

Submission from the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies (BARSC)

  1.  BARSC is a trade association established in 1985 to develop and promote the interests of UK companies concerned with the application of remotely sensed data. BARSC is therefore concerned with the downstream exploitation of data from Earth Observation (EO) satellites. The maturity of the EO applications sector and its rapid convergence with several other technologies is approaching the point at which, with the right investment, it will be a disruptive factor in new information markets in the government, professional and consumer sectors.

  2.  This submission is consistent with and builds upon previous communications from BARSC to BNSC on our priorities for Earth Observation. It also takes into account the discussion at a recent BARSC/DEFRA/BNSC workshop "Operational environmental sensing: Future UK policy drivers, technical requirements and capabilities". Presentations from that workshop and a summary of the discussion can be found here:

  3.  In summary BARSC wants the UK government to:

    (a)  Restore at least GDP-level funding by the UK to the Earth Observation programmes of ESA and EUMETSAT.

    (b)  Through well-targeted national initiatives, support competitiveness of UK industry within Europe in order to secure both financial return to UK on major future Earth Observation programmes such as those of EUMETSAT (MTG) and EC/ESA (GMES), and UK socio-economic benefits resulting from them.

    (c)  Strengthen measures to engage all sectors of UK government as key users of GMES benefiting from the technology in terms of efficiency and economics.

    (d)  Ensure that the UK private sector has a fair opportunity to compete as a provider of Earth Observation services at national level.

  4.  Supporting evidence for these recommendations is given in the accompanying memorandum.


  5.  Applications of Earth Observation (EO) technology by individual BARSC members for the purposes of both environmental sustainability and of wealth creation are described in the BARSC Brochure: UK Industrial Capability in Earth Observation.[1]

  6.  In this submission we have concentrated on the industrial and commercial benefits of EO and on wealth creation, we have deliberately not addressed the very substantial environmental and socio-economic benefits of EO which are the subject of a recently published ESA study led by PWC.

  7.  BARSC members foresee that environmental sensor integration (of which observation from space is an important part) is a new, disruptive technology that is having a strong beneficial impact on the UK government and on British citizens. We would point to the impact of Google Earth and emphasise that this is merely scratching the surface—operationalising space assets for making medium and high resolution observations of the Earth is enabling a step change in the variety, quality and usability of up to date environmental and security information.

  8.  We consider that strong UK participation in the development and running of operational European observation systems will bring the following core benefits leading to a multiplier in wealth creation from the downstream EO sector:

    (a)  Guaranteed availability and continuity of observations—lack of such guarantees have been barriers preventing end users from committing to information streams based on EO.

    (b)  Quality assured products which are easy to use—this has been a major factor in the operational adoption of EO.

    (c)  A solid customer base within the government institutional sector—from this base of users, new commercial (mass market and professional) applications can follow.

    (d)  A sustainable business case providing return on investment in UK infrastructure to support the operational flow of data and services.

  9.  Lessons should be drawn from the 30 year history of how low resolution meteorological satellites evolved from a supporting role to become indispensable.

  10.  An analogy can also be drawn between EO and satellite navigation. After many years as a technology for professionals and enthusiasts "satnav" recently reached the mass market through (a) completion of the technology convergence needed to enable effective functionality at an acceptable price point and (b) assured quality and continuity of the service. Both government RTD and government purchasing of services have been significant factors in this.

  11.  EO is not yet as mature as satellite navigation, but there are major EO programmes under development in Europe which will change this. The UK needs a coherent strategy for—and to make strong commitments to—these EO programmes now, (especially GMES) not just to secure the end user benefits, but also to secure the jobs and new downstream markets which will arise from implementing the technology operationally.


  12.  GMES represents the current single biggest opportunity for BARSC members, and the single biggest threat if UK commitments in GMES services are weak compared to other leading European nations.

  13.  UK companies have had success in securing downstream value adding roles in some precursor GMES services: For example, BARSC members lead:

    (a)  the ESA supported RESPOND service for Rapid Mapping that supports response to natural and humanitarian crises; and

    (b)  the ESA supported TerraFirma service that provides very accurate measurements of ground motion, including building subsidence, over large areas.

  14.  However, this success can be traced to RTD investments that were made by the UK government in EO applications development in the 1990s and before.

  15.  Since the mid 1990s it has been increasingly difficult for UK EO value adding companies to compete against those in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and smaller nations such as Austria and Belgium where national support has been maintained or increased for EO applications development in the private sector.

  16.  In the area of EO data provision, UK government investment in BNSC's MOSAIC programme has resulted in UK business having an increasingly strong role providing optical imagery at the low resolution end of the market through DMCii. This comes at a time when much more costly (factor of 100) but technically much stronger programmes operated by France and the USA are faltering. So the timing is excellent but complacency is not an option as the global demand for higher quality optical imagery exceeds the current capability of the UK supply.

  17.  A co-ordinated national action programme is needed now and UK commitment through ESA is also needed to secure strong roles for the UK in the EC-funded implementation phase of GMES. Without these measures the UK will get in a situation where it has no option but to buy services by proxy through the EC from non-UK companies. Currently the possibility exists to ensure UK industry can compete for and win a larger share of these roles, but the window of opportunity will close at the next ESA GMES funding decision in 2007.


  18.  The elements of ESA's programme devoted to the development of downstream EO applications have been less than 3% of its overall EO programme, yet it has had a very significant impact on the industry. This funding should at least be maintained if not strengthened.

  19.  In BARSC's view ESA has taken a highly effective leadership role in raising the technology-readiness levels of many EO applications. Measured in terms of outcomes (such as new customers, new users, new operational applications), ESA activities such as EO Market Development, Data Use Element and GMES Service Element have been significantly more effective than equivalent activities in EC Framework Programmes.


  20.  Since 2003 responsibility for UK government investment in EO passed from DTI to NERC. Whilst this has undoubtedly had a good effect on UK science very little of this funding finds its way to support knowledge transfer into the private sector. National spending on the pre-competitive development of commercially operated EO applications has been negligible for more than five years. As a result the skill base and the breadth of new commercial applications in which the UK is competent has dwindled.

  21.  There are identifiable structural and cultural barriers, in particular there is low motivation and few incentives in the environmental research world to work with existing successful businesses on transferring know-how and intellectual property related to EO applications. Where knowledge transfer in EO applications does take place the majority is into government agencies rather than private companies. This further weakens the possibility for the downstream industry to offer services as the capability for institutional in-sourcing is strengthened. BARSC is working with NERC on these issues.

  22.  Concerning the operation of EO services, BARSC members are anxious to ensure that the provision of GMES services does not become wholly a responsibility of national public sector institutions or international agencies (institutional in-sourcing). Whilst the oversight and provision for delivery of services might reside with governmental organisations we would insist that much of the technical and operational work should be carried out by private industrial entities under competitively contracted conditions.

  23.  Our case for industrialised services is based on:

    (a)  cost reduction by maintaining competitive conditions;

    (b)  enabling the innovation of new commercial services—this type of wealth creation simply will not occur if services are delivered solely from inside public sector organisations; and

    (c)  staff attitudes, management and organisational structures in industry are geared to delivering operational services efficiently and to agreed service levels.


  24.  BARSC members currently deliver some EO services to government departments under competitively contracted conditions. For example there is now a 15-year history in monitoring agricultural subsidies using remote sensing. This model for service delivery has been effective in driving down the cost of services whilst allowing the private sector to develop the complex expertise needed, build infrastructure capacity and thereby develop new business streams in new markets.

  25.  BARSC would welcome measures to ensure that this approach to procuring national services is considered as a priority in the UK as new EO services are adopted across government.

  26.  Existing BNSC programmes such as GIFTSS can point to real success in getting government departments to adopt EO applications as part of evidence based decision making. The scale of the GIFTSS programme has been remarkably modest in relation to the potential returns and it has sometimes taken a very long time to engage users in government—sometimes due to departmental reluctance. We would call for stronger measures to eliminate barriers and strengthen the uptake of EO applications across government—DEFRA is to be congratulated on its recent development of departmental best practice in this respect.


  27.  Funding for NERC research in EO applications has been effective in developing UK science. BARSC has concern that the very advanced knowledge that exists in the research base is not being transferred sufficiently rapidly into the EO industry (as IPR or as skilled practitioners).

  28.  BARSC members would like the UK government to identify GMES facilities that might be hosted within the UK because:

    (a)  UK-hosted services will create high value jobs in the UK, build up national skill levels and capacity in the EO domain.

    (b)  UK-hosted services will inevitably bring international visitors to the UK.

    (c)  UK-hosted services, if set up and operated in the right way, can act as a catalyst for new value adding services (both public and commercial).

    (d)  UK-hosted services will benefit from the significant industrial experience and expertise in operating facilities of the type that are required for GMES.

  29.  This concludes BARSC's written evidence to the Committee, please note that key recommendations we would request the Committee to consider are contained in the covering letter on the first page of this file.

October 2006

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