“Energy supply, communications, transportation – our globalised society is highly dependent on functioning infrastructures. Typical examples are roads and railway lines, but also water pipelines, data cables and power lines,” explains OHB project coordinator Daro Krummrich. “Just how critical these infrastructures are for daily life becomes particularly apparent when disruptions occur. These can be caused by natural disasters, extreme weather events or deliberate manipulation. In order to be able to restore the functionality of critical systems promptly after an incident, it is important to quickly gain an overview of the overall situation. This is why IIMEO is about detecting infrastructure malfunctions automatically, across large areas and in near real time, regardless of local weather and lighting conditions.”
Development of satellites and algorithms
To this end, a satellite system is to be developed within the framework of the project. The intended use case calls for the principles of New Space: Since global coverage and revisit times of less than one hour are required for infrastructure monitoring, the project partners assume that a suitable constellation in low Earth orbit (500 to 900 kilometres altitude) will consist of at least 24 small satellites. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging radar instruments are to be used as payloads, which will be supplemented by sensors for the wavelength range of visible light (VIS). This will enable high-resolution images to be generated even at night and under heavy cloud cover.
Another focus of the project is the development of algorithms. Since continuous global monitoring of infrastructure with SAR and VIS sensors produces gigantic amounts of data, it is necessary that these are already processed on board the satellites. This is to avoid the data downlink being a bottleneck in the system. Davide Di Domizio, Research Programme Administrator at the European Health and Digital Executive Agency (HaDEA) and in charge of IIMEO, explains: “In 2022, the Horizon Europe work programme set the ambitious goal of demonstrating the performance of key technologies for future Earth observation systems by 2028. With the development of the planned on-board data processor, IIMEO is well positioned to make an important contribution to this mission.”
Airborne technology demonstrator
Once the development phase is complete, all relevant key technologies will initially be combined into an airborne technology demonstrator. The goal of the flight campaign planned for 2025 is to demonstrate the end-to-end prototype downstream service, including on-board data processing. The automated detection of obstacles on railway tracks is to serve as an example application. The national company for the management of railway infrastructure in Serbia was won as a cooperation partner and pilot user. Slobodan Rosić, Serbian Railway Infrastructure Risk Manager, points out: “A satellite-based automatic monitoring system makes it possible to collect high-quality information about the condition of the infrastructure in real time without having to interrupt regular traffic and without the need for personnel on site.”
The next demonstration mission, currently planned for 2026 and 2027, will go one step further: it will demonstrate that the system developed in the course of IIMEO is also suitable for the global monitoring of railway lines from space.