From the quality of water, through the paving of open spaces and the state of permanent grasslands to specific harvest forecasts: these are all developments 'on the ground' that can be monitored from space using remote sensing. The high time resolution of the new European satellite systems, the extensive digitisation of image processing and the achieved ease of use have prompted further incorporation of remote sensing applications in specific regional policy areas.

The Flanders Environment Agency (VMM) is currently working on the roll-out of the WaterMonitor. Ultimately, this tool is intended to serve as a kind of early warning system for the quality of surface water. The monitoring tool is based on images from the Sentinel satellites, the core of the ambitious European Earth observation programme Copernicus. Today, the image resolution is high enough for local and regional policy support. The algae growth in Flemish surface water is an example of a natural process that can be closely monitored from space, thanks in part to VITO's image processing technology, in collaboration with Informatie Vlaanderen.  

The same Sentinel satellites and exactly the same processing technology also have the potential to monitor permanent grasslands in Flanders for the benefit of the Agency for Nature and Forest (ANB). The Flemish Department of Agriculture has used remote sensing applications to monitor crop production in the context of a Programme for Innovation Procurement (PIO).  Finally, the Environment Department is analysing the possibility of imaging the paving of open spaces in Flanders. 'It is important that the satellites transmit new images every two to three days', explains Jan Biesemans from VITO. 'That way, processes in a given environment can be monitored with unprecedented time resolution. Often they can even be quantified to an objective value (e.g. accurately estimating harvest yields) that is useful for the competent authorities'. 

A cascade of applications 

This is only a small selection of what is possible today thanks to the high time resolution of the satellite images, and the continuous combination of space and aerial images, which means that the spatial resolution is also continuously high. Remote sensing has therefore become an extremely powerful instrument that has launched a cascade of possible applications. But these applications also need to be developed and used properly. And by the right parties. 'In today's reality with dispersed competences - not only in Belgium and Flanders, but also in Europe - it is crucial that specific and thematic applications are set up from the relevant policy domain and policy level', explains Jurgen Everaerts from VITO. 'Take Terrascope, the virtual research platform of the federal government that gives everyone access to the data from the Sentinel satellites. This platform needs to be used much more by the regional and local authorities and also by private companies and other organisations. And in this regard, the applications need to fit together seamlessly: the federal government provides for and finances a global framework (in this case Terrascope), but the development of applications should ideally come from the regions and from specific competences or industrial and economic sectors. In Flanders, we have a unique opportunity in this respect, because we can supplement the satellite data with, for example, high-resolution aerial and drone images'. 

According to Jo Van Valckenborgh, programme manager at Informatie Vlaanderen, from a government perspective it is important that both a generic operational part and the development of specific remote sensing applications are aligned as much as possible with the relevant Flemish policy areas and levels. 'Maybe we need some kind of intermediary Flemish data platform within the Flemish government to complement Terrascope in support of the various policy areas, e.g. environment, agriculture, etc.' This intermediary platform can also serve research and industry. Everaerts: 'If we can demonstrate in Flanders that we can create a well-functioning remote sensing landscape, this is also possible for the EU as a whole, or in other European regions and Member States. As such, we form a 'living lab' for all the applications that also offer international prospects'. 

Validating regional policy 

Once incorporated into the relevant policy levels, various remote sensing applications follow a striking circular motion. The WaterMonitor of the VMM, for example, emerged from a Horizon 2020 project (i.e. across Europe) into the monitoring of water quality from space. 'And the current European environmental legislation obliges Flanders to report back on the quality of its surface area to Europe', explains Van Valckenborgh. 'It's a similar story for other environmental facets'. Or agriculture. 'Europe allows Member States to set their own emphases and priorities within the broader framework of the Common Agricultural Policy', says Everaerts. 'To this end, any support measure granted to a farmer must be validated and sent back to the Commission. Satellite imagery can help validate regional policy in this way'. 

The recent environmental and climate plans of the European Commission enhance this regional embedding of remote sensing applications. 'Ambitious policy instruments such as the Green Deal and the Digital Twin of the Earth all place great emphasis on using remote sensing data such as the Copernicus data,' explains Van Valckenborgh. It is clear that the data will be further incorporated into policy applications, up to a 'Smart City' level, where we no longer even notice the fact that it is based on satellite imagery'. 

Removing hassles for the end user 

The multitude of remote sensing applications would not have been possible without the extensive digitisation of image processing in recent years. 'If you want to know the evolution of a specific area today, you simply send an assignment to a backend, after which you are immediately served,' explains Biesemans. 'Up until a few years ago, you first had to download the satellite images and put the time series together yourself'. Extensive digitisation has greatly improved the ease of use of backend platforms such as Terrascope. User-friendliness was also improved thanks to the pre-treatment of supplied data, something that VITO, for example, has focused on intensively. 'As such, we make using the data platforms accessible and we remove the hassle for the end user'. As a result, Terrascope enjoys a good reputation in other European countries. Since Terrascope can be used by anyone free of charge, it also offers opportunities for application developers to work with satellite data. 

But ultimately it is the end users - people with knowledge of the terrain - who need to be involved in designing specific remote sensing applications. This is shown by, for example, the development and use of the WatchITgrow tool to monitor potato cultivation and increase production sustainably. The data for the tool comes from satellites and drones but also from sensors on agricultural machines. The Belgian potato sector was closely involved in the roll-out of the tool. 'It helps to predict harvests, which means that you are responding to market forces, and so you need that sector,' explains Everaerts. 'It demonstrates that successful remote sensing applications involve much more than just monitoring. They just need to be developed and used within the right framework'.

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