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AI4EO - ESA and DFKI launch innovation factory for AI in Earth Observation

ESA InCubed and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) have signed a contract to support a new development initiative focused on Artificial Intelligence for Earth Observation (AI4EO). The three-year programme will involve setting up an innovation seedbed where DFKI’s AI experts will collaborate with major industry players on new EO business cases.

[Translate to English:] © contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2020), processed by ESA,CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
ESA’s satellite programs provide images that ca be used to climate change, can be used to accurately monitor plant growth, the spread of natural disasters or indicators of climate change, like sea-level rise.
  • InCubed funding agreement signed for the AI4EO Solution Factory
  • New business scenarios for industry
  • Expansion of the DFKI transfer network

Earth observation is enjoying an ever-widening field of application, from crop yield forecasting and land cover detection to urban planning and disaster management. With the sheer volume of data generated however, simple manual analysis is often no longer practicable, giving rise to the need for automatic tools such as AI or, more specific, Machine Learning (ML).

Collaborative environment for new business scenarios

In order to provide such tools for commercial customers, DFKI is creating the AI4EO Solution Factory. Co-funded by the ESA InCubed programme and initially scheduled to run for three years, the Solution Factory will combine the market knowledge of industry partners with DFKI’s AI expertise to provide customised algorithms for a wide range of applications based on satellite data.

The funding contract for the initiative was confirmed yesterday at this year’s ESA Φ-week event. Commenting at the signing ceremony, ESA Acting Director for Earth Observation Programmes, Toni Tolker-Nielsen, said at the signing, “I’m very pleased to be here for the launch of this initiative, which is the first of its kind supported by ESA. We see a great deal of potential in the AI4EO Solution Factory, and I look forward to following its progress in delivering AI-powered EO solutions to customers.”

“The AI4EO Solution Factory creates a collaborative environment to open up new business scenarios in the field of Earth observation based on the combined expertise of DFKI and ESA and to develop customized AI solutions for partners and users. Our transfer lab ESA_Lab@DFKI, which was founded at the beginning of the year, also provides the perfect framework to explore further technology needs in ESA projects and to help shape modern space application and resulting business models with the latest AI methods", says Prof. Dr. Andreas Dengel, Executive Director of DFKI in Kaiserslautern and Head of Smart Data & Knowledge Services.

DFKI Project Manager Marlon Nuske explained the crux of the Solution Factory: “The central idea is to leverage synergies from the development of AI solutions for various Earth observation use cases. While each individual solution will be unique in its applications, many of the underlying building blocks can be reused for additional products and projects.“

The significance of the timing was not lost on ESA Technical Officer Nicolas Longépé: “Signing this InCubed contract during Φ-week helps reinforce the event’s principal themes of New Space and innovation. The Solution Factory will undoubtedly demonstrate how collaboration between industry and academia can enable EO Commercial Space to flourish.”

“The support from InCubed will inject some essential financial impetus into the Solution Factory,” Marlon Nuske added. “We’re officially kicking off this week, with several leading industrial corporations already on board for the first joint product development in the agricultural sector.”

Nicolas Longépé was enthused by the Solution Factory’s prospects: “This is the largest ever InCubed initiative with a German partner, and we’re certain the Solution Factory will produce important advances in AI-driven EO applications over the next three years. The genesis of the collaboration between DFKI and the Explore Office is a great example of ɸ-lab’s ‘innovate and apply under-one-roof’ ethos.”

Expansion of the transfer network

The AI4EO Solution Factory also expands the partner network to include the DFKI Transferlabs. ESA and DFKI had founded such a lab at the beginning of the year. The Transferlabs are a still young, successful cooperation model of the DFKI, with which concrete AI solutions are developed in close cooperation with industry partners, from the research ecosystem. For this purpose, the partners send personnel to DFKI to work in the research areas. The sustainable transfer of innovative AI technologies to industry and society is thus closely linked to scientific progress. The spectrum of transfer labs is nearly as broad as that of DFKI research. In addition to ESA_Lab@DFKI, there are transfer labs with companies and organizations from various industries: Hitachi, IAV, Sartorius or BKA/LKA. Others are in the making, also to exploit synergies with the AI4EO Solution Factory.

© Valentina Stefanelli
Andreas Dengel (left) and Toni Tolker-Nielsen after the signing of the contract.
© contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2020), processed by ESA,CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission to provide images that can be used to accurately monitor plant growth.

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