Space: A Key to Sustainable Infrastructures on Earth

Our modern society relies on the stable and unlimited availability of critical infrastructures. From roads, railway networks, and airports to basic water and energy utilities, all these elements are essential to the economy and the quality of life we enjoy. Along with their consistent functionality and security, the sustainability of these infrastructures is thus of tremendous importance – and this is where technologies from space are playing an increasingly decisive role.

The innovation competition INNOspace Masters works with prominent industry partners to identify projects that foster transfers of technology between space and other sectors. In doing so, it seeks to protect critical infrastructures for the long term and thereby ensure that the economy and our society at large continue to be supplied with fundamental goods and services. Ideas for the next edition of INNOspace Masters can be submitted until 5 February 2021. Enter now!

The significance of space technology for infrastructures on Earth

The fields of Earth observation, satellite communication, and navigation are especially important to the availability and sustainability of terrestrial infrastructures.

Data provided by Earth observation satellites, for example, facilitates the type of remote diagnosis that is necessary to monitor the status of such infrastructures from space in a secure and comprehensive manner. Satellites can detect millimetre-level changes in infrastructures and the Earth’s surface itself while also covering wide swathes of terrain, even in remote areas. Thanks in particular to new technologies like AI and machine learning, this monitoring can be improved and automated further to ensure that resource-intensive (and sometimes dangerous) maintenance work is only performed when required. The following success stories demonstrate just how versatile space technologies can be in a wide range of applications here on Earth.

In 2020, the THEIA company took third prize in the INNOspace Masters DB Netz AG Challenge with its Extensive Road Monitoring Early-Warning System (ERMES). This system uses satellite data to provide comprehensive monitoring of slope stability and changes in the ground along roads and railways. Based on high-frequency remote sensing data, it is able to determine how quickly a given deformation is taking place. ERMES thus makes it possible to implement efficient preventive maintenance strategies and optimise measures designed to minimise risk.

The Bavarian company EOMAP, a spin-off of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), has turned high-resolution remote sensing data into a portal for UNESCO’s International Initiative on Water Quality. Thanks to the simple and location-independent access it provides, this online portal also supplies developing countries with information on water quality and promotes the sustainable use of water resources. Meanwhile, the high availability of satellite data and the analysis techniques the company has developed itself enable EOMAP to map the quality of all the world’s inland and coastal waters.

The high-precision time and positioning data leveraged by the global satellite navigation systems constitutes an essential component of self-driving vehicles, automated agriculture, container tracking, and applications related to the Internet of Things (IoT) in which the exact localisation of objects is absolutely critical.

Intelligence on Wheels (IoW) was founded in 2012 as another spin-off of the German Aerospace Center with support from the ESA Business Incubation Centre Bavaria. Its innovative collision prevention system for trains (RCAS) utilises highly precise satellite data to determine exactly where trains are on tracks and how fast they are travelling, all in real time.

Callwise Ltd., the winner of the INNOspace Masters Airbus Challenge 2019, has come up with an innovative IoT solution for tracking and monitoring shipping containers in real time all around the world. The underlying concept is based on an inventive architecture that combines satellite and mobile network tracking with LoRaWAN tracking and monitoring of individual means of transport. Callwise’s end-to-end system thus enables shipping and logistics companies to follow specific containers in real time while monitoring their status (including in terms of temperature changes, deviations from planned routes, and whether a container has been opened) at every stage of multimodal transport.

Due to their constant availability, satellite communication and Internet services from space are playing an ever-greater role, especially in more remote areas. To provide a complement to such satellites, AlphaLink Engineering GmbH – a finalist in the INNOspace Masters Airbus Challenge 2020 – is developing a solar-powered composite aircraft that combines several individual “planes” by means of mechanical mounts on its wing tips, which gives the aircraft a large wingspan. Capable of operating reliably in the stratosphere without any crew, this stratospheric aerial array can be used to provide low-cost Internet access to remote regions, for example.

When new developments are achieved (in material science, for instance) when creating components for space, they often present added value in other areas of industry, as well. For an example, look no further than ESDA-Axiotherm GmbH – the winner of the OHB Challenge and the overall winner of INNOspace Masters 2019 – which is working on a new type of material that prevents fluctuations in temperature and thereby keeps spacecraft components from becoming too hot or cold. Batteries, including those used in electric vehicles, aviation, and maritime applications, stand to benefit in particular from this technology.

Satellite control centres and other ground segments

Controlling satellites and their functions, receiving and processing satellite data, and creating usable products are all tasks that are carried out by ground segments. Control centres and other stations on the ground need security mechanisms that prevent unauthorised access to control systems, sensitive data, and privileged communication channels.

These are further areas in which INNOspace Masters and the German Aerospace Center are interested in new approaches to optimising processes and ensuring digital sustainability and security in space (in order to guard against cyberattacks, for example). In a total of five challenges, the DLR, Germany’s ESA Business Incubation Centres, Airbus, OHB, and DB Netz AG are inviting entrants to submit their innovative ideas by 5 February 2021. The winners of these challenges will receive tailored prizes and up to EUR 400,000 in funding they can invest in the long-term realisation of their ideas. Enter now!

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