Features, Insight, Opinion, Technology

Opinion: Role of Innovation in Driving the New Space Economy

By Jamil Kawar, VP for Missions in the Middle East and North Africa for ICEYE

Since the United Arab Emirates celebrated UAE Innovation Month in February, it now seems a good time to look at some of the technological advances that are shaping the new space sector.

The UAE is right at the forefront of the New Space economy, increasingly looking to the sector to open new economic opportunities and drive growth. Earth observation satellites lie at the heart of its strategy, and the local market for this technology is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 8.55% in the next five years. Innovation within the satellite market is key to this growth, and recent advances have done much to turn Earth observation into a significant market opportunity for the Emirates.

A clearer view of the earth

Perhaps the most fundamental change is that modern satellites are much better at taking images of the Earth. The gold standard for satellite imaging is synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites. Whereas traditional satellites typically rely on optical and infrared sensors, SAR satellites work by bouncing powerful radar beams off the surface of the Earth from around 550 kilometres in space. The beams return to the satellites to build a highly accurate picture from these pulses of what’s happening on the ground below.

What this means in practice is that SAR satellites are able to record clear images of an area of interest during night and day as well as in any weather conditions. The technology enables users to see through cloud, smoke, and other environmental factors that once would have rendered a satellite image unusable.

Smaller, yet more powerful

However, one of the drawbacks of traditional SAR satellites is that they are very large and carry enormous antennas. As a result, they have traditionally lacked flexibility and only been capable of limited revisit frequencies. In recent years, a new form factor has emerged. The latest generation of SAR satellites are small and highly agile and therefore able to revisit the same location on Earth daily and even multiple times within a single day. This unlocks a completely new level of change detection, with government agencies and commercial organisations alike now able to acquire data on any location any time they need it and with very high resolution / high frequency revisits.

The latest generation of SAR satellites use an innovative antenna design that opens the door to an unprecedented range of operational approaches and imaging modes. Specifically, the design enables long imaging dwell times at extremely high resolution and brings the ability to flexibly manoeuvre the antenna and scan the radar beam across wide areas. This means imaging modes can be tailored to the user’s needs. For instance, the satellites can monitor huge areas in the many tens of thousands of kilometres squared or zoom in to areas of interest at high resolution – down to a matter of centimetres.

Lower costs open new avenues

As mentioned, traditional SAR satellite missions require large and expensive platforms that carry massive payloads. The latest generation, on the other hand, uses a miniaturised, active-phased array sensor mounted on a much smaller satellite platform. As a result, these new satellites are affordable by design.

This is important as lower cost points combined with the relative ease of getting smaller satellites into space mean that much larger satellite constellations are now possible. These large networks of satellites mean that for the first time ever it’s now possible to persistently monitor an area of interest every 24 hours. As a result, government agencies and businesses can benefit from important new use cases for Earth observation.

For example, by using change detection techniques, users can now identify highly accurate ground changes every 24 hours, including things like movement of a vehicle along a track or lava flow during a volcano eruption. Each image in a stack has the exact same geometry, radiance and phase, which enables centimetre-level change detection.

Putting satellite innovation to use in the UAE

With the UAE currently exploring a wide range of options to exploit the New Space economy, the latest generation of SAR satellite has much to offer. From monitoring borders and ports to keeping an eye on maritime activities and charting oil spills in real time, innovations in satellite technologies can help the UAE protect its citizens, national interests, and local environment. At a time when Emiratis are celebrating innovation in all its forms, we should take the moment to look to the stars. This new economic sphere promises much, and technology innovation is the only surefire way to realise this potential.

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