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NCEO scientists win ‘Space Oscar’ for pioneering research to reduce deforestation

Researchers from the National Centre for Earth Observation at the University of Leicester have won the prestigious Copernicus Masters Award.

The award gives international recognition for their research that has led to a mobile app to help combat illegal logging.

Researchers Professor Heiko Balzter from the University of Leicester’s School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, and researchers Dr Ciaran Robb and Dr Pedro Rodriguez-Veiga received the award, for their pioneering research to reduce the devastating effects of deforestation.

The Copernicus Masters is an international competition that awards prizes for innovative solutions, developments and ideas for business and society based on Earth observation data.

Professor Balzter and his team have won the prestigious Sustainable Living Challenge 2017 award by the Satellite Applications Catapult, under the umbrella of Copernicus, the European Programme for Earth Observation.

The prize is awarded for Forest Sentinel, a system that sends out rapid deforestation alerts to a mobile app and enables communication with hundreds and thousands of app users in the field via a central dashboard. This enables effective protection of forest assets from illegal logging.

Near-real-time deforestation alerts are sent to the app whenever a new satellite image is acquired, every 5 days once the two satellites Sentinel-2 A and B are fully operational, within 24 hours of imaging. They are pushed to a big data analytics engine where they can be accessed via a user-friendly dashboard.

This system provides near-real-time deforestation alerts – and unprecedented spatial resolution of 10 metres allows detection of small-scale forest degradation and selective logging of single large trees in tropical rainforests.

The research is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (reference: NE/N017021/1).

The flow of information from satellite to mobile app (copyright RSPSoc)

Deforestation is a threat to the world’s forests, with a mind-boggling 48 football fields of forest globally being lost every minute. The REDD+ climate mitigation policy adopted by the Paris climate agreement aims at reducing deforestation levels.

Professor Balzter said: “We want to achieve a breakthrough in the fight against illegal logging with the Forest Sentinel system. The powerful integration of satellite images with a mobile phone app and a big data analytics capability provides a step change in the ability of organisations to respond effectively to the loss of forest land.

“The system has been designed with the needs of user organisations at the forefront of our thinking. The Kenya Forest Service and the forestry stakeholder organisations there have helped in defining what it is the service needs to deliver. We are also grateful to our industry partner Ukall Ltd in Nairobi with whom we have solved the integration of satellite information with a powerful app-based communication system.”

Professor Balzter was selected to take part in the Copernicus Accelerator Programme where he will be assigned with a mentor that will provide business and technical coaching for approximately one year.

Professor Balzter worked with the mentor at the Accelerator Bootcamp, which took place on 6 – 7 November in Tallinn, Estonia, in line with the Copernicus Masters Awards Ceremony and European Space Week.

On 7 November the overall winner and all other winners from each Challenge were announced and awarded at the official Awards Ceremony event, by high-ranking representatives from politics, industry entities, research organisations and other institutions.

The ceremony took place in conjunction with the awards of this year’s European Satellite Navigation Competition and with the Satellite Masters Conference. The Forest Sentinel project involved expertise from the National Centre for Earth Observation at the University of Leicester, the Kenya Forest Service and UKALL Ltd.

More information about the ‘Space Oscars’ is available here.

More information about the Forest Sentinel system is available in the RSPSoc SENSED newsletter.

For more information contact Professor Heiko Balzter on 0116 252 3820 or email hb91@le.ac.uk.