UN/ESA programme "trains the trainers" in Earth observation

by the European Space Agenc

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A few months ago, a Sri Lankan civil engineer stepped off a plane in Rome after a long, 18-hour flight from Colombo. Like millions of other visitors to the Eternal City, she was interested in seeing the sights, but not quite in the usual way.

The engineer, Malkanthi Tantirimudalige, skipped the Forum, the Coliseum and the usual tourist spots of Rome. Instead, she headed to the suburb of Frascati, home of the European Space Agency’s European Space Research Institute (ESRIN) facility. She is spending six months there under the tutelage of ESA’s Earth observation training group to develop a course on remote-sensing techniques at the Open University of Sri Lanka, where she serves as a lecturer in the department of civil engineering.

"We want to introduce remote sensing as a degree course at the university, and also as a stand-alone course for professionals in various disciplines where remote sensing would be applicable," she explained. "I’m preparing the lesson materials now and, with the assistance of ESA’s Earth observation specialists, going through them to finalise the materials."

Her proposed syllabus covers the range of basic to advanced Earth observation techniques from basic photographic systems to advanced space radar systems. It includes such topics as: visual interpretation, multispectral, thermal and radar sensing, digital image processing, and integration of remote sensing in geographical information systems (GIS).

"I’m getting more experience in the practical interpretation part of satellite imagery,” she says. "If my university is ready to accept the work that I am doing here, it will be extremely valuable."

When she returns to Sri Lanka at the end of the year, she also intends to work with her students to analyse digital imagery of major reservoirs in the country and the surrounding landscape for potential environmental impact assessments.

UN space office manages fellowship programmes

Tantirimudalige is at ESRIN courtesy of a fellowship programme for space technology research and applications, an illustration of the long-term cooperation between the United Nations and ESA. The programme is managed by the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UN/OOSA), based in Vienna, and co-sponsored by ESA through a series of fellowships offered at ESRIN for remote sensing studies and applications, and at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands for studies related to communications systems, remote sensing instrumentation, space antennas and electromagnetics.

Joining Tantirimudalige at ESRIN this year as part of the fellowship programme is Tej Bahadur Thapa, a biologist and lecturer at the Central Department of Zoology, Tribhuvan University of Nepal in Kathmandu. Like her, Thapa leaves a family behind at home. That, along with some stumbling blocks in dealing with a new culture and becoming accustomed to a foreign language, hasn’t made the past few months a typical Roman holiday for them, but they expect the experience will pay off when they return home.

"The knowledge, expertise and resources gained at ESRIN will be helpful to enhance remote-sensing education in our department and others at the university," Thapa said.

The University of Nepal’s zoology department already includes courses using what Thapa describes as basic remote sensing techniques – including aerial and photographic processes, along with an introduction to GIS systems. The Nepalese educator hopes the ESA Earth observation training will assist in the development of training on the latest digital techniques employed to analyse data captured by various Earth observation spacecraft, including ESA’s ERS and Envisat satellites.

The ESA training also will help Thapa study the wildlife habitat of the Royal Bardia National Park, a 968-sq-km preserve in the lowlands of southern Nepal near the border with India. The park, a former royal hunting preserve set aside as a wildlife refuge in 1976, is home to a diverse array of species including, crocodiles, hordes of birds, leopards and other jungle cats, antelope, deer, monkeys, sloth bears, and river dolphins. The park is one of the last places in the world where rhinoceros, elephants and tigers co-exist, offering exciting and urgent opportunities for research and conservation.

"The combination of our biological knowledge of species, GIS systems, and the training in using satellite data will help us assess, map and monitor the wildlife habitat of the park," Thapa said.

The two learned about the ESA/UN training programme through a course in remote sensing both attended at the University of Stockholm. There, they met Juerg Lichtenegger, an ESA Earth observation applications engineer, who was one of the course instructors. Lichtenegger told them about the possibilities for the six-month training program on advanced Earth observation techniques at ESRIN. Their proposals for their course of study were accepted by UN/OOSA last year, and the two found themselves headed for Italy and ESA.

African professor looks back on his ESRIN study

Two years ago, an African educator made a trip similar to Thapa’s and Tantirimudalige’s, this time from Dakar, Senegal. Dr Souleye Wade, deputy director for course management at the Institute of Earth Sciences/Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, arrived in April 2000, and spent the next six months studying the use of satellite radar imagery, and specifically interferometric analysis of satellite data, for development applications.

"My stay at ESRIN was very fruitful for several reasons: the exceptional quality of the working environment, the scientific supervision, the technical assistance, and the good quality of the satellite data," Wade says.

In fact, Wade put his training in satellite radar imagery to immediate use while he was still at ESRIN – a remarkable discovery of a previously unknown meteor crater in Africa. Using ERS data and data processing techniques he was being trained on, he was able to detect and analyse the impact crater, located in the Casamance region of Senegal. A presentation co-authored by Wade and ESA Earth observation researchers for a scientific conference in Cameroon took a first prize in 2001.

Through an ad hoc arrangement upon the completion of the programme, ESA provided Wade with a personal computer and software licences for Earth View, a program for radar interferometry, and the ERDAS package used in processing satellite imagery for teaching purposes. The equipment, along with the ESA training, was key, upon his return to the University of Dakar, to establishing last year the Applied Remote Sensing Laboratory at the Institute of Earth Sciences. Since then, students and research scientists have been trained and are conducting applied lab research. And Wade credits his ESA experience as having "something to do" with his recent nomination by Senegal as a member of the UN Expert Group on Disaster Management.

Wade is currently working on four major remote-sensing projects in Senegal:

Spatial technology and GIS-based natural disaster assessment and monitoring: application to the hydrology of the Senegal River and to monitoring flood risks in the Senegal River delta and the Senegalese city of Saint Louis:

Contribution of remote sensing and GIS to the vulnerability assessment of soils and water resources affected by salt contamination in the Saloum River delta;

Contribution of remote sensing and GIS to groundwater exploration in crystalline basement regions;

a UNESCO project to apply remote-sensing techniques for the integrated management of African ecosystems and water resources.

Bringing back the lessons learned at ESA and, in turn, training others in advanced data analysis techniques, is at the heart of the efforts of the UN Space Applications Programme to develop indigenous capability in satellite and related applications throughout the world. Wade’s example, two years out from his six-month stint at ESRIN, is a likely path that Tantirimudalige and Thapa will follow on their return home.

"The ESA programme gave me the opportunity to acquire experience in working with radar and interferometric applications that nobody in the Senegalese remote sensing community had worked in before," Wade said. "It’s my duty now to transfer this know-how through education, training and applied research."

And that’s exactly the hoped-for result of the UN/ESA programme - to train the trainers.

"Wade is the proof that investing in skilled people, like our colleagues currently here from Sri Lanka and Nepal, to gain experience in advanced Earth observation techniques, is an asset to their home countries, and to ESA," commented Maurizio Fea, head of the promotion and training section of ESA’s Directorate of Earth observation programmes.