Space technologies to target illegal gold mining and help protect communities and the environment

Multi-million pound funding for world-class research at the University of Leicester, to use space technologies to target illegal gold mining in Colombia, help herders in Mongolia and monitor tropical forests in SE Asia, has been announced by former Science Minister Sam Gyimah.

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) today (Thursday) announced a total of £38million funding under its International Partnership Programme. From this, more than £6 million is allotted to three projects involving the University of Leicester. Leicester is involved in more projects than any other university:

  • Satellite Applications Catapult, Didcot: Space Enabled Monitoring of Illegal Gold Mining: Leicester Principal Investigator Professor Heiko Balzter and Leicester co-PI Professor Kevin Tansey

  • Peatland Assessment in SE Asia by Satellite (PASSES): Leicester Principal Investigator Professor Sue Page and Leicester co-PI Professor Kevin Tansey

  • eOsphere Limited, Didcot: SIBELIUs: Improved resilience for Mongolian herding communities using satellite derived services: Leicester Principal Investigator Dr Caroline Upton

The Industrial Strategy highlights the importance of bringing together the UK’s world-class research with business investment to develop technologies and industries of the future that benefit society, as well as our economy.

The UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme uses UK space expertise to deliver innovative solutions to real world problems across the globe. This helps some of the world’s poorest countries, while building effective partnerships that can lead to growth opportunities for British companies.

Science Minister Sam Gyimah said: “The UK’s space sector is going from strength to strength. It pioneers new technology and provides jobs for 40,000. Today I can announce that the space sector’s capabilities are being put to use to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.

“The UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme will help developing countries tackle big issues like disaster relief and disease control, while showcasing the services and technology on offer from our leading space businesses.”

Professor Paul Van Gardingen, Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor International and Research Development at the University of Leicester, said: “The award of these three projects is a recognition of the strength of the University of Leicester’s research on the applications of space technology and our ability to work with strategic partners in industry and developing countries. These projects will deliver benefits to society and the economy in a number of developing countries and the United Kingdom.

“Earth Observation is an area of research that the University of Leicester is recognised for being globally excellent, and one that the University is supporting through significant investments including the development of the new Space Park Leicester. This forms a significant part of the UK Government’s investment in the Midland’s Engine strategy and will create additional opportunities for the University to work with industry, and users of our research around the world, to improve jobs, enhance society and contribute to economic growth.”

One project involving Leicester will make use of data from space technologies to target illegal gold mining in Colombia - a $2.4 billion trade which causes devastating impacts on local communities and the environment. The project led by Satellite Applications Catapult, Didcot is called Space Enabled Monitoring of Illegal Gold Mining.

The aim is to improve detection and efficiency in monitoring illegal gold mining in remote forested areas in Colombia. The project will make use of freely available Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data, and incorporate machine-learning techniques to show suspected areas of illegal mining, in a user-friendly web portal. The project will support the promotion of safe and secure working environments for all workers, and a reduction in the health-related effects from the high rates of mercury contamination associated with illegal mining.

Professor Heiko Balzter, from the University of Leicester, said: “Illegal mining destroys large areas of tropical rainforest and pollutes rivers in low and middle-income countries. We want to develop methods for detecting such mining activities from radar satellites that can see through dense clouds. This is important in many tropical countries where clouds obscure the view from space for optical sensors. The forthcoming British-built NovaSAR satellite will provide low-cost radar images for applications like this.”

Professor Balzter is the Leicester Principal Investigator of the Project and Professor Kevin Tansey, also from the University of Leicester, is the Leicester co-Principal Investigator.

The second project involving Leicester is the Peatland Assessment in SE Asia by Satellite (PASSES). Tropical forest fires affect over 20 million people in South East Asia, leading to significant deteriorations in public health and premature mortalities as well as contributing to global CO2 emissions and other negative environmental impacts. Many fires occur over drained peatland areas. This project will use satellite observations and measurements to map peat condition, even when under a forest canopy. By monitoring water levels and improving hydrology in the peatland areas, the risk of fire can be dramatically reduced. By using freely available observations from satellites through the EU Copernicus programme and use of emerging industrial hosted processing capabilities, PASSES will prove that peatland monitoring is a cost effective way to reduce forest fires.

Professor Sue Page of the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment at Leicester has been carrying out research on tropical peatland ecosystems for 25 years. She said: “I am delighted that the UKSA have invested in the PASSES project.

“Tropical peatlands are vitally important ecosystems that play a key role in the global carbon cycle. Peatlands are the most carbon dense terrestrial ecosystems. Left undisturbed, these long term carbon stores can help the world meet the target set under the Paris Climate Change agreement to keep global average temperature increase under 2OC.

“But keeping as much of that peat carbon in the ground as possible is challenging because any form of disturbance changes the peatland from a carbon sink to a source of carbon to the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.”

In Southeast Asia, peatland covers about 200,000 km2 (80% of the land area of the UK). But much of this peatland has been degraded, i.e. drained and deforested. Not only does this drive high carbon emissions but it also substantially exacerbates forest and peat fire risk and severity, with significant damage to the health of thousands of people due to related air pollution.

A key factor in reducing both carbon losses and fire frequency and severity is to restore and maintain the health of peat ecosystems and achieving this goal is central to the development agendas of both Indonesia and Malaysia.

Professor Page added: “The PASSES project will work with in-country partners to develop a system to actively monitor and manage peatlands that will promote responsible peatland management, ecosystem recovery and thereby reduce the risks of fire and carbon loss. The project results will also have wider relevance beyond Southeast Asia for other peat-rich regions of the humid tropics, including the Congo Basin, where a team including Prof Page have recently discovered extensive peatlands, and Amazonia.

“PASSES provides an exciting new opportunity for improved peatland management practices that attempt to integrate scientific, land use practice and policy aspirations to mitigate some of the more intractable and negative consequences of peatland development.”

Professor Page is the Leicester Principal Investigator of the Project and Professor Kevin Tansey, also from the University of Leicester, is the Leicester co-Principal Investigator.

The third project involving Leicester is SIBELIUs: Improved resilience for Mongolian herding communities using satellite derived services. The Leicester Principal Investigator for the Project is Dr Caroline Upton, Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment at Leicester.

She said: “University of Leicester is delighted to be a partner in SIBELIUs, a new project which will support the livelihoods of Mongolian herding communities using new, satellite derived services.”

Mongolia is a large country with around 30% of its population dependant on livestock herding.These herding communities can be devastated by extreme weather events known as “dzuds”, usually comprising a dry summer, adversely affecting pasture growth, followed by a cold winter with deep snow. A typical dzud can impact many tens of thousands of herders, often leaving them in extreme poverty, with associated impacts for the wider economy. SIBELIUs will provide greater dzud-resilience for herders by developing and providing Mongolia’s National Agency for Meteorology and Environmental Monitoring with new and upgraded satellite-based environmental products and improving their capacity for distributing products to key stakeholders supporting herding communities. As a vital component of the project, SIBELIUs will also work with herders at selected case study sites to analyse their information requirements, to better understand barriers to uptake of previous insurance products, and to ensure their voices and priorities are heard in the development and distribution of new satellite-based environmental products.

The International Partnership Programme is part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF): a £1.5 billion fund from the UK Government, which supports cutting-edge research and innovation on global issues affecting developing countries.


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