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NEC's space business to aid in the realization of a sustainable society

Delivering social value through applications of space technology

In 2021, the NEC Group formulated a mid-term management plan in which we set our sights on creating a shared vision toward realizing a brighter future with customers. To this end, we have launched Thought Leadership activities under the guidance of the Institute for International Socio-Economic Studies (IISE)—a think tank run by the NEC Group. Through these activities, the NEC Group aims to boost our ability as a market leader to conceive and communicate our vision for the future and create new values through the implementation of this vision in society. In July 2022, we brought astronaut Soichi Noguchi on board as executive chief fellow at IISE, where he is working to develop solutions to promote carbon neutrality. As a prelude to the IISE Forum 2023 to be held on February 10, 2023, Soichi Noguchi and Shouhei Ohno—who is in charge of the satellite utilization business at NEC— discussed the application of space technology to environmental issues.

IISE Forum 2023
Shaping new markets and economic security through the co-creation of knowledge

13 February - 31 March 2023
Free on-demand streaming available

Changes in the global environment as observed from space

Ohno: In July 2022, you were appointed as executive chief fellow at the Institute for International Socio-Economic Studies (IISE), the think tank run by the NEC Group. I believe you are currently working on developing solutions to promote carbon neutrality.

Noguchi: When I was appointed executive chief fellow, NEC President Takayuki Morita expressed his wish for me to apply my strengths and experience to promoting initiatives toward achieving carbon neutrality, which is an area of focus for NEC. What can be done at IISE to contribute to the promotion of carbon neutrality? In what ways can we collaborate with NEC businesses? What do we need to do to connect with experts outside the organization? These are some of the questions that we are currently exploring at IISE.

Soichi Noguchi
Astronaut/Executive chief fellow at the Institute for International Socio-Economic Studies

Ohno: You have been aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as a resident crew member several times. Have you noticed any changes in the environment when looking at the Earth from space?

Noguchi: When I first saw the Earth from space I was overwhelmed by its beauty. The Earth was so beautiful that it truly took my breath away. However, the Earth is undergoing environmental changes—many of which are clearly visible to the naked eye. When comparing observations from my first stay on the ISS in 2006 to my most recent trip to space in 2020, I could see visible signs that the environment had changed over the past 15 years or so.
In the Arctic Circle, for example, huge icebergs more than 10 km long can be seen from space. These icebergs are blocks of ice that have broken off from glaciers and are carried by ocean currents. As these icebergs drift south and continue to melt, sea levels will rise.

Shouhei Ohno
Assistant Manager
Business Development and Promotion Group /Infrastructure Monitoring
Radio Application, Guidance and Electro-Optics Department
Aerospace and Defense Solutions Division, NEC Corporation

Also, if you look at the Amazon in South America from space, you can see brown lines extending here and there like branches in the rainforest. This is an indication of rampant development in the forest.
I believe these are signals that warn of impending danger. The Earth’s environment has been formed over a period of more than 4 billion years. Of course, the natural environment will change naturally every 1,000 or 10,000 years, but it is alarming to see changes that are visible to the naked eye in just 10 or 15 years. We need to pay careful attention to these signals.

Ohno: Even here on Earth, we can feel the changes in the environment and climate, but from space, you can actually see the differences, can't you?

Noguchi: I believe that one of the reasons that humans venture into space is to be able to see the Earth directly from the stars. Being able to tell everyone in Japan in my own words, in my native language about what I saw with my own eyes when I looked at the Earth from outer space is one of the most remarkable aspects of space travel for me as a Japanese person.
However, the capacity of the human eye is limited. Accurate monitoring of environmental change requires the use of Earth observation technologies, including satellite remote sensing. In other words, as astronauts, we can use our voices to give honest feedback about our observations, while technologies and data provide the ability to back up what we say. I think this is of paramount importance.

Technologies for observing the Earth from space

Ohno: NEC has been working on projects to develop solutions that can complement what astronauts see with the naked eye. Since I joined the company in 2015, I myself have been in charge of the business related to the utilization of image data obtained through the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) installed on satellites. As you know, SAR is a radar that transmits microwave signals from space and receives the reflections from the ground to acquire information. A key feature of SAR is its ability to observe the Earth throughout the day without being affected by the weather. In addition, the SAR operated by NEC follows a sun-synchronous polar orbit, making it possible to observe the entire Earth. SAR can be used in a wide range of applications, including monitoring environmental changes such as deforestation, assessing the situation during a disaster, and also maintaining and managing infrastructure. In recent years, SAR data has been combined with a variety of other data for use by private companies and local governments.

Noguchi: SAR is truly groundbreaking technology. I believe that SAR data will become a particularly powerful tool for predicting future developments.

Ohno: I agree. I think an effective way to use SAR data is to analyze factors such as environmental changes to identify signs of change; in other words, we could use accumulated historical data to make future projections.

Image of SAR satellite

Noguchi: The progress made in efforts towards achieving our objectives and requirements for carbon neutrality is referred to as “Scope.” Scope 1 involves reducing CO2 emissions from business facilities; Scope 2 involves reducing CO2 emissions associated with generating electricity, heat, and other energy sources; and Scope 3 involves reducing CO2 emissions from each process in the supply chain. I often talk with IISE President Kumi Fujisawa about the strategies that should be put in place for Scope 4 emissions and the so-called reduction contribution amount. Perhaps a timeline should be included with information on how much CO2 the company building will emit in 10 years and how much CO2 will be emitted if it is rebuilt. Such perspectives are likely to become more important in the future.
With respect to the concept of trading emission reduction credits as an approach to achieving carbon neutrality, SAR data can be used to make future projections that incorporate a timeline of emission reductions into the credits. This is an approach that may be possible in the future.

Ohno: The utilization of the data in the way you describe is truly fit for the future.
Another sensor that NEC is developing is called HISUI(Hyper-spectral Imager SUIte )in a project which is run by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. It has already been installed on the Japanese experiment module "Kibo" for the International Space Station (ISS). Have you ever operated this sensor?

Noguchi: I am of course aware that HISUI is on board the ISS. Although I have never operated it directly, this is another revolutionary technology that is unlike any other.

Ohno: The human eye recognizes objects using the three primary colors of red, green, and blue (RGB). In other words, there are only three bands, but hyperspectral sensors can detect objects in more than 180 bands. This makes it possible to determine the differences in forest tree species, resource distribution, crop distribution, and other environmental factors in detail from space.

Noguchi: I believe that hyperspectral sensors are indeed a technology that will greatly expand the possibilities of data utilization. Data is just data. We need to use the latest technology to analyze and interpret the data, and only then can we create new value. I believe this is NEC’s strength as an ICT company and I hope that NEC will continue to demonstrate this strength in the space field.

Shifting from the Space Business to the Space Utilization Business

Ohno: Currently, we are proposing the use of satellite data mainly to domestic companies in Japan. When we talk to companies, many of them tell us that they have never heard of this kind of satellite technology before. I feel that the utilization of satellite data is still in its infancy in Japan. In contrast, I get the impression that companies based overseas, especially in Europe, are actively using satellite data. From your global perspective, what do you think are the differences in the use of satellite data between Japan and other countries?

Noguchi: I do not think that the use of satellite data in Japan is far behind that of other countries, but there is certainly a difference from Europe and other countries in terms of the degree of penetration into the general market. European companies are very good at matching the “seeds” of opportunities with “needs” by understanding the market and trends. I think we have a lot to learn from them in this regard.
For example, in Japan, satellite weather data is mainly used by the Japan Meteorological Agency. Imagine if the use of satellite data were expanded to include predicting the amount of rainfall at the time when the athletic meet is scheduled to be held in your city next Sunday. That would certainly increase the number of individuals who would need the data. Or perhaps businesses would be attracted by a proposal to monitor the crop on a 700-hectare tea plantation by satellite and determine when to apply fertilizer and when to harvest.
What do people around the world want, and how can technology and data be used to meet those needs? I think the ability of sales engineers to think about these questions and make recommendations will be even more in demand in the future.

Ohno: I think you raise a very important point. NEC refers to businesses that utilize satellite technology as the “space utilization business” rather than the “space business.” The space business has a nuance of developing and selling satellites and various equipment, including hardware. On the other hand, the space utilization business uses such hardware and data-related technologies in solving social issues and in corporate activities. What is important in the space utilization business is precisely the matching of “seeds” and “needs” that you mentioned. I would like to work with IISE to spread NEC's space utilization business around the world.

Before we close this interview, please share your thoughts about your upcoming participation as a panelist in the IISE Forum 2023 to be held on February 10.

Noguchi: I will be a panelist in the session, “Disaster Prevention and Carbon Neutrality.” In this session, I would also like to talk about how IISE can contribute to the NEC vision for 2030. Personally, I am interested in space-related themes and I intend to actively integrate space-related themes into IISE's activities in the future. I hope that this forum will help to push this initiative forward. The forum will be streamed live online and be available on-demand. We hope that many of you will be able to participate.