10 april 2008

Satelitter og vandudsigten

ESA Interview

Today’s interview gives us the opportunity to focus on another very hot topic: water. Our interlocutor is Head of the Ecology and Environment department at DHI Water and Environment. Can you introduce your company to our readers?

DHI Water and Environment is an international consulting and research organisation officially born in 2000 from the fusion of the former Danish Hydraulic Institute with the Institute for the Water Environment (VKI), joined in 2005 by the Danish Toxicology Centre (DTC). Thanks to these merged competencies, in a few years DHI reached out to all continents, being now present in 19 countries with about 600 employees. Near-future forecasts foresee 700 employees by the end of 2007 and a steady growth leading us to a 1000 people staff in three years’ time.

DHI is a private, self-owned company with no shareholders, offering consultancy based on highly qualified research: our first two founding institutions have been doing research for over 40 years and 35% of our staff has a PhD qualification.

DHI is recognised as an Authorised Technological Service Institute by the Danish Ministry for Science, Technology and Innovation, which means it is providing services to the government contributing to approximately 7% of the annual turnover.

What type of services are you actually offering to your clients?

The range of consultancy services, software and hardware products and tools is extremely wide as well as the client portfolio.

The thematic fields we cover with our competencies range from urban water and industry over water resources to marine and coastal topics. We perform numerical modelling, set up environmental laboratories and scale model test facilities, run field surveys and monitoring programmes, and we deal with institutional capacity building and training. Hence our clients are both private and public, running from the transportation sector to the offshore and infrastructure industries, to financial institutions and governmental authorities.

Indeed, water is a “horizontal issue” and even when looking at a single one of your services, there is a big variety of (potential) customers. This is the case, for instance, of the Water Forecasting System, the one giving rise to your collaboration with ESA.

Correct. That’s exactly our approach. Rather than trying to solve specific problems case by case, we decided, in 2001, to develop a rich and complex model, using and providing an abundance of data. With such an asset in place, it’s easy and straightforward to extract and tailor a subsystem to specific user needs.

Let’s clarify it. What is exactly the Water Forecasting System doing?

I like to compare it to something more familiar to everybody: weather forecasting.
Most recent advances in hydraulic modelling, combined with meteorological forecasts, make it possible to provide twice-daily forecasts of hydrodynamics, advection/dispersion and numerous biological and chemical variables in 3 dimensions (waves, water levels, current directions and velocities as well as temperature, salinity, oxygen and chlorophyll). Currently, we produce a 5-days forecast.

Up to three years ago, input data were more sparse and irregular, derived from monitoring stations and boat field trips together, of course, with meteorological data forcing the system. We felt the need for a more spatially and temporally regular source and envisaged the potential of EO data. Finally, the collaboration with EOMD offered the opportunity we were looking for. Now, the system is ingesting data from several sensors aboard Envisat and other satellites, and this resulted in much improved performance.

Our Water Forecasting System has an ever growing number of subscribers using it.

Who can get advantages from this system?

The list is very long. It spans industrial, administrative and leisure fields of activity: for instance, it can help the environmental authorities wishing to issue a public warning for the occurrence of a poisonous algae or a dangerous approaching oil spill; the wind farm construction company, who wants a complete hydrodynamics forecast before transporting construction elements to the sea site; the fishing company who checks the local current, salt and temperature conditions to locate the best fishing grounds; the yachtsman who wants to plan his weekend activities.

The (potential) users change also according to the area taken into account. Our system has been initially developed for the Baltic Sea, the Danish Belts & Straits and the North Sea but now it covers an increasing number of areas, each with different prevalent needs. For instance, the Gulf of Mexico is particularly interesting for offshore engineering, and the Sea of Chiloé for mussels’ aquaculture.

Our target is to steadily increase the service spatial coverage, by establishing partnerships with expert groups who have already well-established models for specific areas, as the one running the Mediterranean Forecasting System (whose responsible is Nadia Pinardi).

At the same time, there are plans to merge our commercial activities with those of some meteorological organisations to create a joint company which would work as a proper infrastructure for a global forecasting system. The business is huge; there is a likely turnover of tens of millions of euros over there.

Indeed. The importance of improving forecasting, monitoring and information for the water resource is nowadays stronger than ever in relation to climate change worldwide, not only in the developing countries. As stated at the beginning of the recently published EEA report on “Climate change and water adaptation issues” (Feb 07): “The impact of climate change on Europe's water resources is a critical issue for people's lives and the economy.” Is there any kind of limitation to the expansion of the sector?

Yes, and it is not a technical one.

Sure, we might improve our service, for instance we might take advantage of satellite data better customised to our need but, you know, the volume of this market at global level would even justify that we contract ESA to set-up our own private micro satellite!

The obstacle to market growth, the difficulty in commercializing our system, is political. It is related to the fact that there are governmental organisations and university institutes who get funding from public sources to develop systems which we feel already exist; tax payers’ money is used to develop already existing systems and to deliver them to people who could perfectly well pay for that service.

It is tax-paid competition which could be avoided by privatising some fields or by involving the private industry in the discussion for distribution of public funding through projects on technologies already well mastered by the private sector.

Was this also the case for your contract with EOMD?

Definitely not, we feel that ESA is doing something in the right direction. Our collaboration with EOMD was only partially funding our developments, implying an investment from the company based on the firm belief in a commercial follow on of the contract.

Expanding your system and market to other geographic areas, joint venture with meteorological organisations: are these the main plans for the near future?

Not only. Our goal is the integration of different systems. The one we have been describing is focused on open sea and coastal areas but we would like to expand the forecasting to inland resources, we are discussing with the European Environmental Agency for a very interesting land use forecasting. And satellites play an essential role in all this.