How do you contribute to the Earth observation industry?

One of the most important benefits of engaging with space is learning about Earth. It was only by leaving the planet did we gain a better understanding of how it functions. Today, a major area for growth in the space sector is the Earth observation industry. There are numerous observation technologies and a wide variety of applications – as enthusiasts will tell you, it is easier to start with a problem and then to work from there to consider how Earth observation can help. It usually can. To learn more about Earth observation, we speak with a self-described “evangelist”, Aravind Ravichandran, who until recently worked with PwC’s space practice in France. He describes the state of the industry and how people can involve themselves in it.

Why have you described yourself as an “Earth observation evangelist”?

I see two parts to this question. 

Why evangelize? I believe Earth observation (EO) is very much in its early phases, thanks to advancements in satellite manufacturing and launch, as well as in artificial intelligence and cloud computing. EO data has been traditionally used in defense, intelligence, and scientific applications. The multibillion-dollar potential of EO, however, is dependent on its uptake across other sectors such as energy, insurance, finance, infrastructure, and agriculture. Ideally, users do not care that the data is coming from space – they just want to know what problems EO can solve and how to implement it. Given its complexity, I believe EO needs to be evangelized, similar to what Apple did for the Mac (a complex machine when it was first introduced). 

Why me? I used to work in the software industry for five years. Then I switched to the space sector, focusing on EO for the past three years. Being somewhat of an outsider inside the industry, I have a different perspective: I see EO as just another source of data with immense value. With my multidisciplinary background, I want to spread awareness on the potential of EO to non-EO experts. I want to be the bridge that gets EO to end users in a simple but commercially effective way.

What are some of the most promising and challenging areas for growth in the Earth observation industry?

I usually classify the EO sector into three parts – the data layer (the one concerned with the generation and collection of data through satellites); the platform layer (the one concerned with the storage and distribution of EO data); and the insights layer (the one concerned with the applications built from EO data). 

The most promising areas for growth seem to be mostly in the insights layer, with firms building data-driven digital products akin to software applications with SaaS-based business models. The platform layer is also very exciting, now with both Microsoft and Amazon getting into the mix to make satellite data more accessible and usable through centralized, cloud-based solutions. 

The challenging area of growth will be in the data layer where the business models are less straightforward. Even though the prices have been dropping in the past few years, we have not commoditized EO data as much as we should in order to unlock all the innovative applications of EO. We would need more collaboration among industry players to get EO data more accessible and usable by the community of end users. 

I am very excited about the new types of sensors being developed, all of which are going to produce new types of data (infrared, hyperspectral, video etc.). Edge computing and processing data on-orbit with AI are also upcoming areas expected to disrupt the EO industry.

What advice do you have for people who want to get involved in the industry?

1. A background in remote sensing or space is not necessary. EO is just another source of data, like economic data, financial data, social data etc. Certainly, one needs to spend time understanding the fundamentals of this data given that it is collected in space through satellites – processing this data could benefit from an understanding of geospatial technology. But this fundamental knowledge can definitely be acquired easily as you focus on the type of role you want to play.

2. Start with a problem. Any upcoming technology is aimed at solving a specific problem. The challenge with EO sometimes is that it can help solve so many different sorts of problems that it can be a little overwhelming for newcomers. But, if you focus on a particular problem and then try to understand where EO can help solve that problem, it might give you a better framework for understanding EO and contributing to the industry.

3. Fresh perspectives and new ideas are needed. The traditional EO industry is changing and NewSpace EO has arrived. EO needs all sort of crazy ideas – be they in design, sales, marketing, strategy, operations, or engineering – to help it become mainstream. New ideas will help EO contribute to solving a wider variety of minor and major political, environmental, and business challenges. To develop such new ideas, we need diversity in people, gender, ideas, and culture. I am more than happy to introduce you to the world of EO!