Written by Nera Kuljanic,
Europe is a space force and communicating the tangible benefits the European space programme delivers daily to all Europeans is an important priority. This was the leitmotif of the workshop on the use of artificial intelligence (AI), big data and space technologies in terrestrial management, hosted on 23 February 2021 by the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) and chaired by Member of the European Parliament and STOA Panel Member, Maria Manuel Leitão Marques (S&D, PT).
Manuel Heitor, Minister for Science, Technology and Higher Education in Portugal, welcomed the attendees on behalf of the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) and recognised the workshop as an ideal moment to launch a discussion about new policy options to enhance research, governance and regulation related to AI in the public sector.
With the aim of raising awareness of the opportunities offered by space technologies and AI, especially in view of the growing volume of space data and the potential of using AI in the public sector, the workshop featured presentations of projects that illustrate how space technologies and AI can help to address related issues at local, national, EU and international levels.
Capabilities in space for benefits on Earth
Monitoring land cover and land use is important for public policy in many ways: for land planning, agricultural, forest and water management, estimating and managing fire, flood and erosion risks, and mitigating climate change and related effects. Having reliable and detailed maps is key. Mário Caetano from the Portuguese Directorate-General for Territory explained the advantages of Copernicus – the EU’s Earth observation programme. It provides large volumes of data with high spectral and spatial resolution and a much better revisit time, while AI-based algorithms interpret and classify satellite images. Compared with traditional mapping, where the landscape complexity is often lost and the process is expensive and time consuming, Copernicus allows us to create more useful maps.
Miguel Bello, CEO of the Atlantic International Research (AIR) Centre, described some of the many applications in sea and ocean monitoring and management. Combined with satellite imagery, AI tools can predict and mitigate the effects of ocean pollution disasters, like oil spills or underwater volcanic eruptions, to protect coast and fishing areas; assist in monitoring natural disaster impacts all over the world; or provide early warning for aquaculture of harmful algae blooms that cause losses of several billion euro to the industry globally. The AI tools are also useful in the fight against piracy at sea and the control of (illegal) vessel traffic, where the behaviour of the boats can be identified thanks to machine learning.
As part of the EU Green Deal and the implementation of the Paris Agreement, important work is ongoing towards establishing the European capacity to monitor human carbon dioxide emissions (part of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS)). Richard Engelen from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) explained the data and tools supporting this work. Satellite observations show the total impact of anthropogenic emissions and natural effects on the atmosphere, and Earth System models help to translate satellite and ground-based observations into emission estimates. Large volumes of such data are used to train algorithms that are then able to translate new observations into new emission estimates. These can be used, for example, to detect and account for the effect of weather on atmospheric pollutants, which was important to correctly assess the impact of Covid‑19 lockdowns on pollutant emissions.
The new European Commission-led initiative ‘Destination Earth’ will develop a very high-precision digital model of the Earth to monitor and simulate natural and human activity, and to develop and test scenarios that would enable more sustainable development and support European environmental policies. Nicolaus Hanowski from the European Space Agency (ESA) explained how a combination of big data, AI and advanced computing will facilitate improved monitoring and predictive information at local, regional and global scale.
AI for smart, more liveable cities
The effective adoption and use of AI solutions represent transformative potential for municipalities. In the City of Amsterdam, AI, ubiquitous sensors and algorithms allow for a new view of the city and a better way to manage it. Maarten Sukel presented specific AI-enabled initiatives to detect and collect garbage and abandoned objects, maintain roads and infrastructure, and observe social distancing in Covid‑19 times in a transparent and privacy-friendly way. As a result, the city is safer, greener and better maintained.
How to translate more data into more benefits for all
European space infrastructure generates large amounts of data that can help understand how our planet is changing, but it can also bring opportunities for business and science, and feed into applications for citizens. Moreover, with the growing number of satellites and the large amount of data generated by them, AI will be crucial to help extract information from their observations, enhance analytic and forecast capabilities, and turn them into tailor-made products and services. The combination of AI and Earth Observation therefore offers great potential to better respond to major societal and policy challenges. How can we turn this potential into action? Ricardo Conde, President of the Portuguese Space Agency; Roya Ayazi, Secretary General of NEREUS (Network of European Regions Using Space Technologies); Matthias Petschke, Director at the Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space (DG DEFIS) of the European Commission; and Nicolaus Hanowski, Head of the Mission Management & Ground Segment Department at the European Space Agency (ESA), took part in the discussion.
Lack of dissemination on EU space initiatives, capabilities and possibilities was a recurrent point during the event, and all speakers agreed that industry, the research community and administrations at all levels must step up their dissemination efforts. Digital literacy is not to be underestimated in this respect, as it is important that citizens understand the impact of these new technologies, and they appreciate and utilise the open and freely available data and information (including algorithms). Space technologies and AI can play a role in reducing inequalities, as they enable new capabilities that allow us to see the world in a new way and therefore offer a new approach to addressing inequalities.
When it comes to the uptake of space technologies in regions across the EU, user realities differ. More cohesion is needed for the equal sharing of benefits, as Copernicus is seen as a fundamental instrument for green climate and digital transitions. Some of the factors that can help to bring this forward were specifically mentioned by the panellists. Administrations and policy-makers at different levels need to be familiar with the opportunities Copernicus offers. However, even with the best political will, administrative ambition and free and open data, ultimately, technical capabilities and skills are needed to translate the potential into products and services. Among local and regional administrations in particular, joining forces, sharing experiences and solutions, and cooperating closely is key for the successful uptake of Copernicus possibilities. On a national level, it is important to recognise the new opportunities for science, industry and society, and design and implement specific policies to facilitate development of downstream applications.
Member of the European Parliament and STOA Panel member, Lina Gálvez Muñoz (S&D, ES), closed the event by introducing an additional element – inclusiveness, in particular with regard to gender – as a key ingredient of the green and digital transitions.
If you missed out this time, you can watch the webstream.
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