When we think of space, we think of rockets, faster than light travel, and little green men. We think of Star Wars, or the mission to Mercury in 2018. We don’t necessarily think about data that’s being collected on a daily basis and how that affects our lives, here, on Earth. Our society is often much more interested in huge technological advances – in going bigger, faster, and further into space; whenever a huge leap is taken, for example the inflatable space elevator, it is all over the news.
EO has commercial applications in many industries – from predicting traffic jams to tracking wildlife trends and finding illegal opium poppy crops.
Earth Observation (EO), the gathering of information about planet Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems via remote sensing technologies, has commercial applications in many industries – from predicting traffic jams to tracking wildlife trends and finding illegal opium poppy crops. In the first of our industry reports as part of our Intellectual Property League Table, we’ll be looking at the application and Intellectual Property (IP) behind EO. We’ll also be putting the spotlight on IP100 entrant Astrosat – an award-winning Musselburgh-based SME which specialise in EO analysis.
IP in Earth Observation
Firstly we must examine the ways in which EO can be legally commercialised by companies. Determining exactly which laws apply to EO data, and therefore how it might be commercially exploited, varies from country to country. A number of EU Directives need to be taken into consideration, including the Database Directive and the Data Protection Directive, in addition to various international treatises and local jurisdiction.With such a number of different legal instruments at play, SMEs should ensure full compliance before utilising EO data. Helpfully, The Satellite Applications Catapult, has joined with the UK Space Agency to develop a ‘Data Hub’. This will be freely accessible to companies throughout the UK and will simplify the process of identifying where satellite data can be obtained from and the purposes for which it can be used.
While EO data doesn’t provide valuable insights in its raw form, there are opportunities for individual companies to use, analyse, and commercialise it using their own technology. Many initiatives have licensed-out their data for this purpose, including the US government, the Group on Earth Observation, and many more government launched EO missions. China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellites (CBERS) have gone even further; their data can be received by authorised ground stations with no restrictions to their distribution or use. Much of NASA and ESA’s data is available free of charge online or by request. Individual operators, such as Astrosat, can access data from the full range of satellites, both government run and from big companies such as Airbus.
Thus the value and IP behind EO comes primarily from its processing, analysis, and presentation. The fact that this is recognised by large companies and government initiatives allows small businesses and start-ups to benefit from satellite missions that they would not be able to fund themselves, and therefore promotes the innovation necessary for the continuation and growth of the space industry.
Earth Observation in the real world
Astrosat are dedicated to using data collected from space to solve problems on earth. “Pick an industry, and satellite data is applicable to it,” says Steve Lee, Astrosat’s CEP. “We can identify the best place to position tidal and wave resources for the offshore renewables sector; we can tell the fish farming industry the best places to find a flow of clean water – by definition, that makes our market global; we can track back oil spills to the culprit; we can inform transport agencies before the event if there is going to be a landslide which will block their road or rail network, because we have access to virtually every radar satellite up there.”
We can identify the best place to position tidal and wave resources for the offshore renewables sector; we can tell the fish farming industry the best places to find a flow of clean water.
Astrosat’s first project, thermCERT, uses data from EO, in combination with their own software, to detect heat leakage from houses which can be used to reduce thermal waste and carbon emissions. They are also working on identifying erosion, landslides, and tectonic plate movement, with eXude – a flood monitoring programme – winning several awards in late 2015.
The value of Astrosat’s IP lies in its innovative software and analysis of EO data, but they benefit from the collaborative philosophy behind the space industry. Cooperation between industry, government and academia has become very common, as can be seen from the UK government’s new space policy and NASA licensing-out over 1,200 patents to tech start-ups for no up-front fee.
Can we use photographs of space?
Not all data collected in space has been approached with the same collaborative attitude. With the increase in private companies launching expeditions, photographs taken in space are a controversial issue. Andrew Rush – US patent attorney who discusses IP issues in his blog, IPinSpace – was asked to comment on this issue. Rush argues that images taken on a private enterprise, for example, by SpaceX are not in the public domain, even if the project was funded by the public; only images created by government agencies such as NASA can legally be used for commercial gain. However, Paul Van den Bulck – a Belgian IP lawyer – states that copyright refers to works of the mind, and therefore automatic photographs taken by satellites could be seen as questionable at best. Whether copyright lawsuits ensue from increased private companies in space remains to be seen.
EO and innovation
While data collected through Earth Observation may not necessarily be protected under copyright, the analytics performed using this data can lead to the development of amazing software and technological advances which are protected under IP law in various ways – most obviously database and software protection instruments. The most interesting element of EO, however, is the collaboration between the government and industry, between big tech companies like Airbus and SMEs. The sharing of EO data does not stop companies having a competitive advantage or slow innovation; instead it allows companies like Astrosat to start a business at their kitchen table, to analyse the data without big budgets or a way of collecting the data on their own. The most innovative steps in the space industry don’t just take place on Mars; they happen a bit closer to home.
The most interesting element of EO is the collaboration between the government and industry, between big tech companies like Airbus and SMEs.
At Metis Partners, we love celebrating innovation and our IP League Table was designed to reward SMEs for their IP asset strength and track record in exploiting intellectual property. After our visit to Collaborate to Innovate Space Conference 2015 (sponsored by Astrosat), we caught the space bug and hope that the League Table attracts more IP-rich companies from this fascinating industry! To enter, please fill in our quick application. If you have any questions about the process, just email Tibbie McIntyre.
 This amazing piece of technology was developed by Canadian scientists to transport cargo and astronaust 12.4 miles into the stratospher and therefore decrease atmospheric drag during take-off. Sarah Knapton, ‘Inflatable ‘space elevator’ invented by scientists,’ The Telegraph August 2015 [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11805987/Inflatable-space-elevator-invented-by-scientists.html] <accessed 20/02/16>  Frans G. von der Dunk, ‘Intellectual Property Rights as a Policy for Earth Observation Data in Europe,’ Space and Telecommunications Law Program Faculty Publication 2002, Paper 19  Catherine Doldrina, ‘A rightly balanced intellectual property rights regime as a mechanism to enhance commercial earth observation activities,’ Acta Astronautica, Valum 67, Issues 5-6, September-October 2010, Pages 639-647  Mark Williamson, ‘Enterprising Lothian space technology expert keeps business eye on the world,’ Herald Scotland March 2015 [http://www.heraldscotland.com/business/13203926.Enterprising_Lothian_space_technology_expert_keeps_business_eye_on_the_world/] <accessed 20/01/16>  Jason Koebler, ‘When SpaceX Takes Photos on a NASA Mission, Copyright Law Explodes,’ Motherboard, February 2015 [http://motherboard.vice.com/read/when-spacex-takes-photos-on-a-nasa-mission-copyright-law-explodes] <accessed 20/01/16>  Paul Van den Bulck, ‘Copyright In Space,’ IP Frontline November 2008 [http://ipfrontline.com/2008/11/copyright-in-space/] <20/01/16>