The EO sector is undergoing quite a relevant shift, with increasing R&D, market activity by private stakeholders and investment by the public sector.

EO research and innovation is acknowledged as central for the development of new solutions and improvement of EO ability to respond to growing worldwide challenges, such as climate change. This is clearly evidenced, for example, in recent communications, such as the concept note issued in late 2021 by EARSC’s Working Group on the European Green Deal and the speech by the President of the Council of the European Union during the Informal Meeting of European Ministers Responsible for Space held in February 2022.

In this scope, public attention to EO is growing through R&D and funding programmes.

For instance, the Digital Europe Programme, in its Work Programme for 2021-2022, expressly mentions EO data in several projects relating to data infrastructures, platforms and services. The second round of calls was launched in 2022. Note, in this respect, that the Digital Europe Programme also contributes to fund the Destination Earth (DestinE) initiative, officially launched on 30 March 2022, with the purpose to develop an accurate digital model of the Earth «to monitor and predict the interactions between natural phenomena and human activities».

The Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), a key EU funding instrument targeting infrastructure investment, on its turn, foresees that any projects or programs funded by the CEF that make use of Earth observation services should be technically compatible with EU Earth observation and monitoring programs, such as Copernicus. The first call for proposals, worth € 258 million, was  launched in January 2022.

In addition, a series of calls on Space Research under Horizon Europe funding program were published for Earth observation.

In January 2022, the European Commission, the European Investment Bank and the European Investment Fund further made a joint statement committing to invest at least €1 billion to develop the Cassini fund, a space entrepreneurship programme which facilitates financing for European SMEs developing space technology and digital services using space data.

At ESA level, and despite a budget shortfall for the Copernicus programme, several recent initiatives are also worth mentioning. This is the case, for instance, of ESA’s Future EO, aimed at fostering new business opportunities and ground-breaking technologies, in the context of which several tenders are open.

Also, in early 2021, ESA’s EO Africa (African Framework for Research Innovation, Communities and Applications) launched Phase 1 of the EO AFRICA R&D Facility, with the purpose of fostering an African-European R&D collaboration enabling an active research community and creative innovation processes for continuous development of EO capabilities in Africa.

On its turn, the recent European Union - African Union Summit, in February 2022, foresaw the launch of the ambitious Africa-Europe Investment Package, which considers global challenges such as climate change and the current health crisis, and builds on the EU-Africa Digital Partnership seeking, among others, to accelerate the adoption of e-Services and to develop the digital economy to achieve SDGs – with EO being an essential digital technology for achieving these goals.

This trend can also be seen at national level, especially under the recovery and resilience facility. For instance, in Portugal, agendas for business innovation under the national Recovery and Resilience Plan were launched, in which 64 innovative projects were selected to receive financial investment and support, including a EUR 260 million investment led by GeoSat for an Atlantic Earth Observation constellation, data platform and services. In Italy, as well, its national plan for recovery and resilience is funding an EO national project with ESA support. In Greece, investment in the development of small satellites to support connectivity services and EO applications is also foreseen in its recovery and resilience plan. Other countries, such as France, Germany and Spain, also address space in their recovery and resilience plans.

In January 2022, the IX Meeting of the Ministers of Science and Technology of the Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) took place, where a proposal for developing a project for a Distributed Centre for EO in all CPLP countries (including antennas, a database and end-user applications) was presented.

Public attention to EO can also be seen from a set of new space policies, programmes and frameworks recently approved.

At the EU level, the need to adapt the Copernicus programme (further financed under the recent Space Programme Regulation) to increasing competition and defence needs, was highlighted by internal market commissioner Thierry Breton at the 14th EU Space Conference in early 2022. In this scope, a modernization strategy for Copernicus is expected in the near future, as evidenced by the discussions during the Copernicus Horizon 2035 conference held in February 2022.

In addition, EUMETSAT’s Destination 2030, a long-term strategy published in September 2021, highlights and prioritizes a seamless approach to EO, whereby EUMETSAT’s involvement in the Copernicus program will be leveraged in order to mitigate climate change and adapt to the impacts of weather extremes and changing environmental conditions.

In Africa, the African Union Space Policy and Strategy specifically recognize the use of space assets for monitoring and implementing sustainable development policies. Notably, the African Union Space Strategy underlines the importance of EO for these purposes, with the second continental report on the implementation of Agenda 2063, issued in February 2022, referring to the role of space and of EO. These goals were further highlighted in the 2021’s Lisbon Manifesto on Earth Observation for Africa and Europe. In this respect, one innovative example of the use of EO data for sustainable development in Africa is the initiative Digital Earth Africa, which translates EO data into insights supporting sustainable development goals and improving the lives of people across the African continent.

At national level, and for instance, the UK National Space Strategy (published in September 2021 and updated in February 2022) acknowledges EO as a high growth area (notably in respect of applications and services using artificial intelligence and app development), and aims to promote the use of and investment on EO technologies both in the public and private sectors. Express mention is made to the development of a constellation of small satellites for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

In Portugal, the Azores Space Strategy (made available at the end of 2021 and currently under public consultation) also highlights EO activities, including when it comes to RD&I (a point also central in the Portuguese Space Strategy from 2018).

In the US, the issuance, in late 2021, of the United States Space Priorities Framework further highlights the commitment of the country to advance the development and use of space-based Earth observation capabilities that support action on climate change, both domestic and international.

Canada, on its turn, announced Canada’s Strategy for Satellite Earth Observation in January 2022, which addresses the country’s vision for EO and its objectives, covering access to data, tackling climate change and strengthen delivery of critical services.  

And Namibia approved, back in 2021, its Space Science and Technology Policy, which recognizes the goal to foster space driven services such as EO in order to address the socio-economic issues of the continent.

The increasing public investment in EO is accompanied by and is leading to the growth of the private sector, including new entrants, both upstream and downstream. It is estimated that there was an annual increase of 24% in operating businesses in the EO-market from 2020 to 2021, albeit SMEs and start-ups continue to comprise more than 93% of European EO companies, as evidenced by EUSPA Market Report 2022.

For instance, in Portugal, Portuguese company GEOSAT acquired two medium and high-resolution Earth observation satellites, strengthening the supply of Earth observation data and becoming one of the largest satellite operators in Europe.

What is more, as technology research and manufacturing costs drop, the prices of EO services are expected to, upon the reestablishment of normal supply chains, decrease substantially in the short and medium terms. To that effect also contributes that stakeholders are now shifting its business models from the selling of raw data to the selling of EO data-based conclusions and intelligence, with the downstream market having evolved rapidly in the past decade despite still being relatively fragmented by sector.

Still, the growth of EO activities is not being accompanied by corresponding EO legal frameworks.

Indeed, despite the fact that the UN Space Treaties, and especially the Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space, contain a set of very relevant provisions (including when it comes to the collection and access by sensed States of EO data, notably for environmental and disaster management purposes), the fact remains that few countries have national legislation addressing EO activities. This is the case, for instance, of Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the U.S., which have approved legislation on EO, mainly focused on regulating data dissemination activities including in light of international rules and national security interests (e.g., through mechanisms such as prior procedures that need to be met for data dissemination, shutter control, priority access).

Note that, at the EU level, although there was a proposal of a Directive on the dissemination of EO satellite data for commercial purposes, this proposal was withdrawn by the European Commission, and thus, currently, there is no EU overarching legal framework for EO activities, though calls for EU space legislation have been made.

What is more, there are no structured guidelines or models for dissemination of EO data that facilitate the deployment of EO downstream services. The development of EO and trust architectures and interoperability frameworks that are accompanied by legal and governance guidelines and tools, protocols, policies and framework agreements especially for data sharing and trading, including cross-sector, in a modular manner, are increasingly acknowledged as relevant. For instance, the recent Horizon Europe Call on Technologies and solutions for data trading, monetizing, exchange and interoperability aims exactly to facilitate data sharing and interoperability in compliance with the legal framework, for which legal and governance reference structures may play an important role.

The increasing importance of EO data in today’s society and economy requires, thus, that laws be drawn or revisited so that they fit and are aligned with the new legal frameworks applicable to data, and that the initiatives, activities and priorities for the Data Economy are taken into due consideration by space stakeholders, as can be seen in more detail here.