Pushing the frontiers of space technology to change the way we see our world

Prof Danny Donoghue Durham University

In the run up to the North East Centre of Excellence for Satellite Applications annual Discover the Possibilities “Into the Blue” conference next March, Geography Professor Danny Donoghue from Durham University gives his thoughts on how the ecosystem of expertise and knowledge in the North East has the potential to create a world-leading centre for satellite and space.

“Satellite and aerial imagery have transformed the way we look at our world and study coastal ecology, land use, agriculture, forestry and disaster management.

Geographers have been at the cutting-edge of satellite imagery, both as users of existing applications and on the technical side, helping to develop new software for image processing.

My research has used satellite imagery since the 1980s. I have spent time at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and my research has been supported by the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency and commercial companies such as Airbus, Indufor Asia Pacific and NM Group. The bodies that fund research and innovation in the UK, in my case the Natural Environment Research Council, now work closely with research organisations to ensure that research has a clear pathway to make an impact.

My career and the interactions with the wider space sector have given me an insight into the contribution that universities like ours can make, not just in how we use the imagery and data we get from space, but also by pushing at the technological boundaries of how we collect and process that information.

Forestry is an area where remote sensing from satellites or aircraft can play a vital role in addressing problems – from the scale of global climate change to local woodland management. It provides valuable images and data that would be virtually impossible to gather on the ground, partly because of the sheer scale of forests and the difficulty in examining certain canopy characteristics from the ground.

Aerial imagery has a wide range of uses, including assessing the commercial value of plantations and looking for signs of disease. It also has a vital role in conservation and monitoring deforestation and degradation.

Our research into mapping woodland structures recently developed into a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Knaresborough-based company NM Group who assess the engineering properties and risks associated with overhead electricity powerlines around the world. We were able to adapt methods developed for forestry and help them to provide accurate risk assessments for trees that grow under or could potentially fall onto power line networks during storms. In this case, as with many others, the original research had unforeseen commercial and economic benefits, helping major utility companies to protect electricity infrastructure and maintain a resilient power network.

I sit on the Satellite Applications Catapult North East Centre of Excellence advisory board and am very excited about the growth of the space industry and how our universities and businesses are cooperating to create new and highly imaginative uses for satellite data. One of the most important stories we have to tell is how our fundamental research can have huge social and commercial benefits.

At Durham University we already have strong commercial collaborations in Geography, Computer Science, Earth Sciences and Physics but there are many other areas where there are opportunities for closer collaboration.”

Our graduates are also going out into industry where they can show the value of our universities as a resource or a partner.

We are building up an ecosystem of expertise and knowledge that gives the North East the potential to be a world-leading centre for satellite and space.”

Professor Danny Donoghue

Professor in the Department of Geography, Durham University

The Discover the Possibilities “Into the Blue” Annual Conference takes place on 28th March 2019 at The National Glass Centre in Sunderland. The conference will be looking at the Foresight report on the Future of the Sea and responding to the challenges and recommendations set out. To find out more and book your place please visit nesatappsconference.com