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Interview with ExoLabs

In short words, what is ExoLabs? 

ExoLabs’ mission is to provide unique data products as well as software as a service in the field of Earth observation (EO). As a value-added services (VAS) provider, we turn satellite, airborne and drone data into meaningful information our clients can trust and act upon. ExoLabs was founded in 2017 as a spin-off of the Remote Sensing Laboratories of the University of Zurich.

Forest Monitoring based on data from airborne laser scanning and commercial satellite missions

Why is it good that ExoLabs exists?

The increasing demand for data, improvements in technology, the evolution of spatial and temporal high-resolution data, and the awareness of satellite-based products has led to a growth of the EO market. However, many potential users of EO products lack the expertise to gather, process and analyze the required data for their specific needs. In addition, the increasing data availability poses new challenges to the traditional way of data analysis relying on individual computers. These barriers of required expert knowledge and big data processing abilities and facilities prevent many potential users from exploiting the wealth of EO data. In this context, ExoLabs is providing expert solutions for user specific needs based on EO data. To overcome big data challenges, we exploit machine learning algorithms and utilize cloud computing facilities to carry out advanced data analysis on local to global scales.

Who could profit from your services and products?

Earth is changing. And changes in environmental conditions, in particular, affect most of the world’s population. Accordingly, not only policymakers but also industry need to adapt to these changes and need to develop strategies to monitor environmental processes. For this it is essential to know where on Earth changes occur or will occur, what kind of changes will happen and to what extent the changes take place.

Can you give specific examples?

Mining companies strive to explore new and monitor existing sites, insurance companies need to evaluate claims, and financial service companies have to check on potential investment locations and monitor their assets. Furthermore, for commodity traders as well as the tourism sector information that is as up-to-date and spatially accurate as possible is indispensable. In the energy sector, and in Switzerland of course especially related to hydropower, reliable and quantifiable information on natural resources (i.e. snow and the water contained therein) are essential for efficient water management. For all these markets, we provide satellite-based and objective data, from daily updated maps of snow depths, to weekly crop monitoring, to time series analyses, to map changes in land cover and land use in the past decades.

ExoLabs’ crop monitoring based on freely available satellite data.

What are customized end-to-end solutions? Who are your customers?

With our intelligent software solutions and data products we improve business intelligence through tailored solutions and seamless user experience. Our customers can decide if they want to have access to ready-to-use data products (via their preferred API), if they want to have a configurable cloud computing environment to enhance these data products with their own data, or if they want to get the source code to freely integrate the software into their existing infrastructure. For all these services, we provide comprehensive consulting and service – and very important, we always inform about the limitations of Earth observation services (i.e. inaccuracies/uncertainties), because unfortunately the power of Earth observation is often over-sold. Our clients include global leaders in tourism and insurance, national and international research institutions, federal authorities and Swiss companies from the energy sector.

Daily snow depth monitoring.

What is the future of your services and products?

In the future, we will make the various methods and applications that we have developed and will continue to develop in the individual projects available to customers on a uniform platform. This will create synergies in data management and processing costs and thus also lead to cost reductions for customers.

In what ways could your research help the world?

In the context of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs), we can achieve an impact with our products in many areas. In particular our environmental products, such as the daily snow monitoring, enable positive impacts in the areas of renewable energy (e.g. hydropower assets – SDG 7, 9), food supply (e.g. water management for agriculture – SDG 2, 13, 15) or decision support for adaptation strategies to climate change (e.g. winter tourism – SDG 13) by providing comprehensive and quantifiable information on a global scale.

GIF: Snow depth assessment to improve water management for hydro power.

DEEP – Deep learning for snow-monitoring: What can it do? How can it help?

Reliable information on the spatial distribution of snow in mountain ranges are critical for risk assessment, outdoor activities, and water resource management. These water resources from snowmelt are indispensable as they provide drinking water, supply crop production and generate hydroelectric power worldwide. Accurate estimates of snow quantities in space and time are the most important unsolved problem in mountain hydrology. In the Innosuisse project Deep Snow, we aim to develop – together with the ETHZ EcoVision Lab, the SLF, MountaiNow and Outdooractive – novel snow products for Switzerland based on multiple EO datasets and deep learning algorithms. Our objective is to provide seamless, timely information on snow cover, snow depth and snow water equivalent on a daily basis in a high spatial resolution (20 m pixel spacing) via multiple data services and outperforming current standards (weekly information with 1 km pixel spacing) and enable new market opportunities. These include improved outdoor safety standards, hydropower production planning and real-time snow risk assessment among others.

Snow monitoring: left – current standards (weekly updated), right – ExoLabs solution (daily updated)