Investment in space industry research skyrockets in Australia

Professor Mengersen is working on the CRC's Earth Observation and Analytics projects.

QUT researchers and BAE Systems have joined the biggest investment in space industry research development in Australia’s history, with the announcement of the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).

The SmartSat CRC, headed up by Nova Systems and UniSA, is being funded through a $55 million grant by the federal government and $190 million of support from 84 research and industry partners.

Professor Kerrie Mengersen and Dr Erin Peterson, of QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty and Institute for Future Environments, will be working in one of the SmartSat CRC’s key programs of Earth Observation and Analytics.

Peterson works in spatial science and environmental statistics, with a particular research focus on using spatial data for regional monitoring and decision-making.

These studies include assessing the impacts of climate change and wildfires on fish presence and abundance, increases in sea surface temperature and the effects on hard corals on the Great Barrier Reef, and the spatial prioritisation of revegetation to achieve improvements in river water quality.

Mengersen is currently involved in a United Nations Global Working Group on the use of satellite data for official statistics agencies around the world, and has worked extensively with colleagues and students in the area of data analytics and agriculture.

She is also the deputy director and a chief investigator of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers (ACEMS), which has one of its largest nodes at QUT.

“There is a wealth of data generated by space technology and much more to come. We’re looking forward to being able to contribute to the data-focused aspects of this CRC, in particular trying to corral the data into telling us important information about space, science and our society,” said Mengersen.

Mengersen said Earth observation satellite data was being used in such diverse areas as agriculture, mining, transport, logistics, the environment, urban and social issues, and monitoring progress on sustainable development goals (SDG).

“There are both local and global issues,” said Mengersen.

“One interesting SDG is alleviation of poverty. What has this to do with satellite observations and analytics? Well, you can, for example, look at night lights from satellites and be able to estimate the socio-economic growth in countries.”

One area in which Mengersen is currently using satellite data is with agricultural identification and crop yield.

Australia is currently heavily reliant on other nations to host its satellite payloads, telecommunications and earth observations technology, which is increasingly costly and inflexible. An example of that limitation is that countries such as China and the US can observe more about Australia’s annual crop yields than we can.

“Crop identification and crop yield using satellite data have been around for 30 years or more but it’s really because of the next generation of satellite technology that we are able to see, estimate and predict more now. However, in order to do this, we need good ways to manage and analyse the data, and this is where we come in,” said Mengersen.

Peterson said one of the most exciting opportunities was data fusion, which was about developing new methods to combine data from multiple sensors instead of analysing each data stream separately.

“We can also combine these satellite-derived data with data collected on the ground to dramatically increase the amount of information we have for timely, data-enabled decision making,” said Peterson.

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this strategic investment and the positive outcomes it will lead to both within and outside of the Australian space industry.”

BAE Systems is also a partner of the SmartSat CRC.

BAE Systems Australia chief executive, Gabby Costigan, said the partnership will exponentially grow the collaboration that has begun in earnest in Australia’s space domain.

“It will be pivotal to the development of new Australian technologies, capable of significantly improving and transforming the nation’s economic performance.

“Space technologies will revolutionise the way we communicate, observe, analyse and interact with faster and more accurate information.

“The CRC will also increase our national security, ensuring that Australian industry provides the secure systems and data that we need in business and in our private lives,” said Costigan.