Space tech & climate change — it’s time to stop orbiting new solutions and land on them!
Humanity faces an astronomical challenge in climate change, but we have the unique opportunity to tackle that challenge using space tech. But how? And what is ‘space tech’?
At November’s ‘In Space We trust’ event at COP26, the UK government announced that its Space Agency will partner with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs for an exciting new project aimed at optimising the use of space tech in addressing climate change.
For anyone who doesn’t know exactly what “space tech” entails in this context, it’s a constellation of multiple innovations: artificial intelligence (AI), advanced satellite tech and location intelligence (LI).
By now, most of us are familiar with satellites and AI, but what about LI? LI solutions overlay variables (or data points) onto maps to generate insights, which sounds complex, but most of us actually lean on such a solution every day: Google Maps.
Google Maps is just one example of a consumer-facing LI solution used in conjunction with satellite tech scanning the globe and AI that quickly analyses, identifies and extrapolates patterns in vast quantities of data — it can, for instance, predict journey times by overlaying variables like traffic density, roadworks and diversions.
The convergence between AI, LI and satellites facilitates the transformation of out-of-this-world data into meaningful applications and groundbreaking, measurable and sustainable solutions to some of humanity’s greatest challenges, including climate change — and, of course, navigating rush hour traffic!
Consistent with the key objective of Downing Street’s National Space Strategy (to make the UK a global leader in exploiting space tech for climate action), the aforementioned project will soon begin an extensive review on existing activity in the area by the UN and others. The ultimate goal is to find new ways, both direct and indirect, for the space sector to help achieve net-zero.
Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, notes that we’re already turning to space tech “to measure carbon emissions, monitor deforestation and improve climate models that inform international action”. We’re also using low earth-orbit satellites to scan the planet on a daily basis to predict the behaviour of bushfires, giving firefighters the chance to take a resource-saving, prevention-over-cure approach. And much more too.
Cameron Wall, EY’s Asia-Pacific Data & Analytics Managing Partner, says EY teams are currently exploiting space tech — namely, a new algorithm they developed themselves that harnesses satellite data to prioritise track maintenance — to help an Australian train operator take on the issue of tracks warping in the heat.
We’ve seen innovative technologies helping to mitigate climate change from other organisations too. For instance, to maximise wind turbine energy production, French firm Leosphere created an instrument using lidar tech — also used on self-driving vehicles — that measures wind speed and direction from the ground up to 200 metres. The European Space Agency plans to use similar tech on its Aeolus satellite to access global observations of wind profiles from space.
German company ESCUBE are using mini ceramic gas sensors — originally designed to measure oxygen levels around spacecraft re-entry vehicles — to optimise industrial heating systems, minimise harmful exhaust gases and reduce fuel consumption by 10–15%.
Simonetta Di Pippo, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs Director, argues that space activities like this are “vital for climate science and action” and believes that we now need to “maximize the ambition in utilizing space benefits for a better tomorrow”.
Climate change isn’t the only global problem the space sector’s capabilities have helped to tackle, though — they’ve also been used to address challenges in food security, maritime transport, agriculture, disease forecasting, and access to financial services. I’m pleased to report fresh opportunities are even arising in my own industry (professional services).
Cameron Wall argues that space tech has the potential to automate and accelerate insurance claims and help weed out fraud in the wake of natural disasters or other events. Space tech is also capable of predicting the scale of loss before disaster strikes, meaning insurers can offer pre-emptive advice and limit their exposure. But, he regrets to add, poor adoption rates remain an issue:
“Despite the clear business benefits of space tech, enterprise adoption remains relatively low. Organisations may be aware of all three elements in isolation but may not appreciate the power of combined insights”.
Hopefully, this will change. As an innovator, it’s incredibly painful to watch as a unique moment in history is wasted by some, even if seized by others. As Number 10 sets about its mammoth task of mapping existing connections between space tech and climate action, and so unearthing new opportunities in the area, I wish them all the luck in the universe and extend any support I can offer.