‘Together we evolve towards a sustainable society,’ that’s VITO’s motto. But how do we do that exactly? And who exactly is ‘we’? At VITO Remote Sensing, a new vision has been emerging in the sustainability transition in recent years. ‘Data-driven’ is central – or ‘geo-intelligence’, to put the emphasis on remote sensing data. In this vision, data and its targeted use are firmly embedded in the socio-economic fabric. This is done by developing a new structure, a true geo-intelligence hub. VITO cannot do it alone, but is rising to the challenge. Because the time is ripe: the data and technology are available.

The transition towards a sustainable society and economy requires a shift in the way these are driven. Certainly in the economy, today’s focus lies on maximising profit, which means there is little or no consideration of the consequences for people and animals, the environment and the climate. That negative impact must be reduced. Instead of dominating, the economy must be better balanced with the needs and wishes of our society, and with our planet’s capacity. In short, a sustainable balance must be achieved between people, planet and profit (PPP), in which all three can benefit.

It is the point on the horizon of the sustainability transition. How are we getting there? Not by turning the clock back and compromising on welfare and comfort. And not by stopping progress. Instead, efforts must be devoted to innovative solutions. After all, innovation gives everyone involved in the PPP model the means and information to take their responsibility and to reach the crucial sustainable balance.

With its daily involvement in innovation to shape a more sustainable economy and society, VITO has an excellent view of the sustainability transition. Inspired by technological and socio-economic evolutions, it has therefore developed a vision about an appropriate strategy. This is clear and specific. The sustainability balance is to be achieved by using objective and reliable data as much and as widely as possible in the PPP model. The economy and society are actually filled with such data, making data sharing and data-driven decisions and policy the norm.

This vision has emerged within VITO’s Remote Sensing department. The department’s work domain has seen turbulent development in recent years, in the form of the so-called low-orbit revolution. In space, the low orbit is completely ‘open for business’: developing and exploiting satellites is no longer limited to governments, and businesses too are able to exploit their innovative ideas to the full. All this low-orbit activity creates a gigantic increase in data, particularly observation data. At the same time, the technology and knowledge to capture, analyse, process and store such data have taken giant leaps. Which means that the data and technology, and expertise for its processing are now available. They are the aforementioned information and means, and also the basic ingredients of VITO’s vision. Again from the space perspective, this was given the working title of ‘geo-intelligence’.

Weather apps

The fact that the development of a GIH requires broad and close collaboration, spanning the frontiers of domains and disciplines, is no weakness, but a strength. For example, it makes its development and management affordable, because there will be so many more users than in the case of today’s often fragmented data services.

Those wishing to offer a user-friendly service today can often get no further than developing an online app. There is also talk of an app in VITO’s vision, although it is more of an example to illustrate the easy access and democratic nature of a GIH and its distributed platforms. Krekels: ‘In our department we work predominantly with geospatial data. Using a geospatial GIH platform, that is fed with remote sensing data, you could develop an app that gives virtual coverage of the entire planet. Then, a user would be able to see in an instant, for example, the current situtation in the Amazon forest. That may seem strange today, but in fact, it is what we are already doing with weather apps on our smartphone. These provide continuous updates, and if we want to know something about the weather we get an immediate answer. That is a lovely example of a piece of democratisation in science that already exists.’

What can geo-intelligence do for …

... agriculture?
Crop farmers are always keen to know how their crop is doing. Real-time monitoring can give them such data. In a GIH, however, this will be provided in an easily accessible and convenient platform. Farmers do not receive the raw data, but clear and concrete answers to their questions, allowing immediate action.

A GIH agriculture platform is useful, or even essential not only for farmers, but also others involved in the sector. For example, machine builders, food companies, seed merchants, banks or insurance companies.
With WatchITgrow, VITO has already developed an online tool allowing farmers to take decisions based on real-time data and to monitor their crops. With another tool, called MAPEO, VITO also supports the phenotyping in research into new crop varieties and crop-protection products. Both tools can be seen as prototypes (components) in a GIH agriculture platform.

…  shipping?
Geo-intelligence can be used to monitor the open sea and the marine environment, as well as inland waterways. This is feasible with satellite monitoring and also with sensors attached to ships or autonomous drones and ships. The water quality can be monitored, oil leaks can be detected and investigated, rivers and canals can be charted, the spread of plastic pollution can be tracked … Geo-intelligence can also help in combatting illegal fishing and other forbidden ocean activities.

… infrastructure?
In built-up areas, geo-intelligence is used in monitoring and recognising structures and materials. Data of this kind can be used in 3-D urban models (possibly digital twins) which policymakers can use for forecasts and simulations of potential measures. For example, using these models, a city’s energy consumption can be examined and monitored in detail. The potential ‘materials stock’ in a city can also be identified, as part of the circular economy. It was for the latter that VITO has already developed a tool based on automatic materials recognition with AI.

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