When I chaired the Common’s Science and Technology Committee reviewing Satellites and Space back in 2016, I summarised our findings by stating: “The target to grow the UK’s share of the global space market to 10% by 2030 highlights the continuing drive and ambition running through the industry.” It is encouraging that despite the many changes to our political and economic landscape in the last four years, the commitment from the UK Space Agency and the UK space sector as a whole continues and grows at pace to this drive and ambition.
In 2016, the comments I made were also a warning of the risks facing the space and satellite industry if public support and wider awareness was not forthcoming: “Further growth, however, risks being undermined by the worrying lack of awareness of this success story. Businesses that sit outside of the traditional space sector could benefit from using space services and satellite data, yet they don’t know these opportunities exist. The space and satellite industry must become more outward looking and engage with other sectors. The Government should lead the way by ensuring that satellite data is applied much more widely to help it achieve effective, and efficient, policy delivery.” It is encouraging that these risks have not come to fruition thanks in no small part to regular investment and funding from Space Agency and government organisations.
In June 2018, to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS, the UK Space Agency in partnership with NHS England and the European Space Agency (ESA) asked innovators to bid for a share of £5 million to turn technology originally designed for space into medical applications that improve NHS treatment and care.
Thanks to this funding, the University of Leicester will develop a new mobile application that uses data from Earth Observation satellites to map pollution hotspots in towns and cities. It combines this with AI to provide personalised exercise routes that take into account any medical conditions the user suffers from which could be exacerbated by pollution, such as asthma.
In addition, space technology could improve early detection and diagnosis of bowel cancer through a revolutionary artificial intelligence (AI) system developed by Odin Vision and UCL researchers that identifies and characterises polyps by analysing live colonoscopy video, leading to early treatment and saved lives. The EARTH SCAN project will use secure, high speed satellite communications combined with bespoke data compression software, which is normally used for operating space missions. The project will create a cloud-based AI system that can support doctors when identifying cancer in patients. Through the use of this space technology, the system can be deployed reliably anywhere on Earth, giving patients a consistent, high level of care.
Adaptix Ltd have also benefited from this funding to develop a pioneering portable 3D medical X-ray machine, based on technology used to study stars in distant galaxies. The equipment will allow doctors to get a more comprehensive view of areas where they suspect tumours are growing, aiding more effective treatment and earlier diagnosis. Miniaturised, portable, and connected through satellites, the kit could also allow patients to be scanned in doctors’ surgeries, reducing the need for trips to hospital for busy X-ray and CT scanners.
In early 2020, UK start-up company Lanterne announced a free app to help people observe social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus, using GPS satellite data and AI technologies. In April of 2020, the UK and European Space Agencies, in support of NHS England, announced an initial £2.6 million is being made available to fund a number of projects to develop hi-tech solutions to challenges:
The funding awards for the above call have been announced today by UKSA and ESA for 3 new projects aiming to support extremely rural locations and vulnerable communities, as well as young people’s mental health throughout this period of isolation. The individual project descriptions below are from the UKSA announcement; to read it in full, please click here.
Skyports, based in London, is working with NHS Highland, which serves a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland, to use drones to deliver medical supplies and samples from a hospital on the Argyll and Bute mainland. Drones will use mobile connectivity, satellite communications and navigation, and Earth observation data, to chart a course to others areas of the mainland and across the sea to nearby islands to reach medical practices in need.
Landmrk Limited, based in Bristol, will develop an app called Stay, a mobile platform for charities and organisations supporting young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Using satellite communications and Earth observation satellites the mobile-interactive app will reward young people for acting positively with ‘badges’, which will be linked to rewards, discounts or other incentives. Positive behaviour will include exercise, watching an educational video and answering a quiz and following distancing and hygiene guidelines.
Stevenson Astrosat, based in Musselburgh, Scotland, is developing a solution, called Isolation +, which uses advanced space data analytics combined with relevant ground information, to identify “hidden” vulnerable communities. This will allow voluntary organisations and local authorities to target support to those who are exposed to the impacts of Covid-19 through poverty and age.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also seen the acceleration of remote monitoring for COPD sufferers and it is encouraging that the space sector is partnering with these companies to embed satellite-based air quality forecasts to enhance this remote monitoring.
Also, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic NHSX ran a competition managed by Public looking at how start-ups and entrepreneurs could respond to the challenges of remote social care, mental health and optimising staffing in care and volunteering sectors. It is testament to the UK’s start-up scene that there was an overwhelming number of applications.
It is also encouraging to hear that Public have subsequently engaged with the Satellite Applications Catapult to see how many of the selected parties could benefit from utilising space and satellite technologies to further enhance their offers as they look to be adopted beyond the trial.
The lessons in all these pilots and engagements between the health sector and the space and satellite industry are consistent with the messaging coming out of health publications (e.g. the Five Year Forward View and the NHS Long Term Plan). Innovation is happening across the NHS, but the challenge remains in adopting that innovation and spreading it across the system.
Throughout all these engagements – whether from UK Space Agency, Satellite Applications Catapult or Public – it is encouraging is that all the initiatives are done in partnership with a part of the NHS whether nationally or regionally. The challenge of scaling and adopting is never going to be a simple one but if collaborations are to continue between the two sectors and solutions are to be co-created and co-designed there are definitely lessons to learn and approaches to adapt from the space and satellite industry and for the healthcare sector to share too.
In my experience, the technology innovation that can be developed in response to industry requirements has proven vital to the development of the health industry, and should continue to be adopted throughout this industry in both public and private sectors.
Where sometimes health systems have deployed a pilot in Region A with potential for scaling it has been held back by being associated as just a Region A solution and not something that would work in our patch of Region M, N or O. The advantage from a satellite perspective is that EO satellite imagery (or even atmospheric monitoring of air pollution and other parameters) does not respect or observe local authority or health economy boundaries and so the data is just as easily available for neighbouring regions as it is for the whole of the UK.
It is encouraging to see the increase in satellite communications technology being deployed to support HART (Hazardous Area Response Teams) and command support units for ambulance trusts and even providing underpinning capability to support London Nightingale hospital. As we continue using digital technologies to support our health system and head towards the HMG approach of digital by default it is important that we utilise satellite communications alongside terrestrial connectivity to support truly seamless connectivity by default.
In October 2019, NHSX published their report on “Artificial Intelligence: How to get it right. Putting policy into practice for safe data-driven innovation in health and care” thanks to the great efforts of Indra Joshi, Jess Morley and a number of contributors. This approach to developing best practice and understanding case studies of how AI and machine learning can apply and benefit the health sector is exemplary. As collaborations continue, this is one area where the space and satellite industry can learn from the health sector and specifically learn from those with expertise in machine learning and how these approaches could be applied to EO or satellite imagery.
There are also challenges and opportunities where the two sectors and industries can learn together. The pandemic has put a spotlight on one such opportunity and that is the importance of interoperability and open data facing both the health sector and the space and satellite industry.
If you would like to find out more about the work of the Satellite Applications Catapult in the area of Health and Wellbeing or to get in touch with the team to discuss working together and collaborating with the space and satellite industry, please visit our Health and Wellbeing page.