What is the European Union’s Copernicus program?

Copernicus is an Earth observation program of the European Union. Copernicus is notable in that its data and information is made available to the public. As such, it catalyzes growth in downstream business activities that make end-use products. To learn more about how the Copernicus program has developed and how it will likely continue to develop, we spoke to William Ricard. He is a Manager in the PwC Space Practice in PwC Advisory France, which has worked extensively in the field of Earth Observation over the past years. He has notably led the production of several reports focusing on the Copernicus program for the European Commission.

What are some of the most valuable services rendered by Copernicus?

It is impossible to say which Copernicus services are most valuable. The Copernicus program offers a plethora of highly valuable data and information. It monitors a wide variety of phenomena, including ocean wind, wave height, algae blooms, land classification, and air quality. There are six core thematic areas of the program: atmosphere, marine, land, climate change, security, and emergency.

The Copernicus program plays a critical role in supporting the European Union’s Green Deal. The Green Deal is a political agenda whose primary focus is for the EU to be climate neutral by 2050. The Green Deal encourages a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy. To this end, the Copernicus program will play a critical role in monitoring the state and evolution of the environment on a global scale; it will support the implementation of the Green Deal. 

The Copernicus program offers a wide variety of satellite data from the Sentinel satellites and other contributing missions. It also provides in-situ data from ground sensors, buoys, and air-born devices. It furthermore entails a variety of information products, such as value-added products based on satellite imagery that provide specific information to end-users. All this helps responses to major environmental and climate-related challenges such as ocean acidification, rising sea levels, air quality changes, and biodiversity protection.

In addition, the Copernicus program also plays a critical role in raising awareness about the uses of satellite imagery. It showcases the benefits which can be derived from satellite-based imagery. This indirectly stimulates demand and growth of the Earth observation downstream industry, not just in Europe but also worldwide.

What business opportunities are there for firms seeking to build off Copernicus?

New initiatives like the Data and Information Access Services facilitate searching, discovering, accessing, and visualizing Copernicus data and information products. It keeps resources in the same digital place data and provides computing power to create advanced products and services. The Sentinels’ imagery, together with publicly available imagery from Landsat and other satellites, can also nowadays be found easily in all large data integrators’ platforms. These include Amazon Web Services’ S3, Microsoft Azure, and SAP Hana. 

Especially apparent during the ongoing pandemic, we see nowadays a strong interest from many startups in using Sentinel imagery. When fused with other sources of data or information, Copernicus offerings can be used to create advanced value-added products and services tailored to very specific business needs. Obvious use cases include insurance, urban monitoring, and air quality monitoring. 

One ongoing issue is that, although satellite data is being democratized within expert communities, this is not happening to the same extent outside expert communities. The adoption of these technologies remains very low in non-expert communities. There still exists a gap between the technology that allows satellite data-based analytics on the one hand, and the specific operational needs of businesses and organizations on the other hand. 

This low market adoption can be explained by three main factors. First, companies offering satellite-based products and services often lack specific domain expertise, which makes it hard for them to tailor their products and service to end-user operational needs. Second, organizations that aim to develop internal capacity often lack clear business case demonstrations and do not clearly show the potential value of satellite-driven insights. This means that there is a lack of clear links between technologies and key performance indicators. Third, organizations that aim to develop internal capacity often lack knowledge and resources to absorb satellite-provided data efficiently. 

This type of gap offers interesting opportunities for companies like us at PwC to help bridge supply and demand. This is particularly so in specialized markets like policy monitoring, insurance, asset management, tax and compliance, retails and logistics, and others.

How has Copernicus changed over the years, and how will it continue to change?

The Copernicus program launched its first satellite, Sentinel 1, in 2014. It currently has five satellites in orbit and two hosted payloads on the EUMETSAT satellites. It intends to have 20 satellites in orbit by 2030. The progress made on the program has been impressive, both in terms of infrastructure and services. There has been significant user uptake in Europe and in other regions. If the first phase of the program was building infrastructure and setting up services, the new focus is now on stimulating user uptake; Copernicus data and information must be used in ways that clearly support Europe’s economy and society.

Given the context of the Green Deal, more initiatives and investments are expected in the near future. They will relate to the development of satellite-based applications that support climate change monitoring and mitigation, as well as environmental monitoring. There will, for instance, likely be a push for new developments in terms of monitoring anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This should all lead to an expansion of existing and new Copernicus services.