In the hilltop town of Frascati, central Italy, European Space Agency (ESA) scientists are busy sifting through a mountain of data. They belong to the Φ-lab (phi-lab), part of the European Space Research Institute (ESRIN) – ESA’s research centre for Earth Observation (EO). Every day, they receive huge quantities of data on the health of our planet, both from space via satellites (like the Copernicus Sentinels) and from other earth-based sensors on land, sea, or in the air.
Dr Pierre-Philippe Mathieu heads the innovative Φ-lab Explore Office, which is focused on unlocking the potential of EO data using cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and quantum computing. “Earth Observation satellites orbiting our planet deliver large amounts of data about the state of our environment on a global scale,” he says. “AI is a powerful tool which turns these big data into relevant information that helps us understand our planet and quantify our impact, and informs decisions to guide us towards sustainability.” AI can help scientists rapidly identify patterns in big data, accelerate simulations of our climate, enhance the image resolution of EO sensors, and extract meaning from EO data in an efficient and scalable manner.
All of the data produced by the ESA is open access. The Explore Office together with the Invest Office connect researchers with industry to ensure that this valuable data can be used not only to benefit our society, by making it more resilient to global change, but also our economy, by creating new business opportunities for startups and industry. Pierre-Philippe says that digital innovators and the wider AI community are always excited to hear about the ESA’s open data policy. They realise that if they combine their computer science skills with the vast quantities of open EO data, they can create a new generation of EO applications that could be transformative for society. They also recognise its business potential – maybe the next unicorn start-up could be one that uses EO data and satellite technology to protect us from climate change.
Φ-lab’s flagship AI4EO project is using AI to mine the large amount of EO data on Earth, and it’s also taking AI into space. Recently, the Φ-sat-1 mission deployed a small, cheap, powerful chip (Myriad), like one you might find in your smartphone, on a satellite to allow on-board data processing in space. Cloud cover often affects the quality of satellite images, and AI successfully detected and removed cloudy pixels so that useful cloud-free images could be downloaded. “By bringing the computing (brain) closer to the sensor (eye), the relevant information for users can be extracted directly on board the satellite, enhancing our speed of reaction to information,” he says. “Also, the AI software on the chips can be updated, making the satellite re-programmable.” Another Φ-lab initiative was recognised by UNESCO as one of its Global Top 100 – these are projects solving problems related to UN Sustainable Development Goals. The team created an AI model to analyse EO data and better predict dengue fever outbreaks in Peru.
To scale the ever-growing data mountain and keep up with rapid advancements in technology, the Φ-lab would like to encourage young scientists and visiting researchers to come and join them. As part of the team, they’ll have the opportunity to tackle global challenges in an interdisciplinary and diverse multicultural environment. Enthusiasm, curiosity, an open mindset, and a drive to make an impact are desirable qualities for new members. The internal research fellowships are best suited to those who have a background in computer science, machine learning, physics, statistics, or engineering. Candidates with a particular skill like, for example, AI, but who have no EO experience, or vice versa, are also welcome as the Φ-lab team encourages cross-fertilisation of fields and will help them bridge the gap between AI and EO. He advises anyone interested to get in touch, especially those who have a genuine desire to use technology and data to guide our “Spaceship Earth” towards sustainability.
Pierre-Philippe has been working at the ESA for 20 years and believes that now is truly an exciting and unique time to be working in the space industry. The “NewSpace” revolution with novel commercial ventures, ever smaller satellites, and transformative technologies has made it cheaper than ever before to have access to space. The ethos of the Φ-lab is to embrace these emerging technological trends. It’s also in a unique position to capitalise on these developments as it has access to high-quality data and excellent facilities and has forged strong links with industry.
Frascati, where the Φ-lab is located, is a thriving Innovation hub with several other research institutes nearby, such as INFN, ENEA, and CNR. Many ESRIN scientists live in Rome as it’s only 20 minutes away by train. Pierre-Philippe enjoys working there, and as a keen “gardener of ideas”, he appreciates that the ESRIN buildings are surrounded by a large garden with olive trees. He says, “At ESRIN, you get to work with people from lots of different disciplines and backgrounds. It’s a really stimulating environment for study, research, and networking and a leading place for Earth Observation in Europe.”
Dr Pierre-Philippe Mathieu heads the innovative Φ-lab Explore Office, which is a part of the European Space Research Institute (ESRIN), ESA’s research centre for Earth Observation (EO).