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Scots firm to use satellite data to help protect rainforests

Edinburgh-based Ecometrica has won a £14.2m contract to help manage tropical forests.

Rainforest: Land is being lost to deforestation. (file pic)
Rainforest: Land is being lost to deforestation. (file pic)

A Scottish technology firm has won a £14.2m contract to help developing countries manage and protect around 300 million hectares of tropical forests.

Edinburgh-based Ecometrica has secured the award from the UK Space Agency's International Partnership Programme (IPP).

The project, which will run over three years, will see the firm's software used to process, interpret and manage the vast volumes of data being transmitted from satellites already circling the earth.

Dr Richard Tipper, executive chairman of Ecometrica, said: "We all know how important tropical rainforests are to the survival of the global ecosystem, but most people are only just waking up to the fact that we need to use technology to make sure conservation efforts are effective and properly directed."

The Forests 2020 project is aimed at helping six countries - Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico - to protect and restore their forests, which cover an area around 12 times the size of the UK.

It will see Ecometrica set up systems to process the data produced all the time by commercial satellites and those of the European Space Agency and Nasa.

The company's input is expected to significantly speed up the interpretation of that information, enabling them to produce maps and data about specific areas of forestry for the countries in question.

The project will further see Ecometrica, which specialises in measuring environmental change, lead an international consortium that brings together many of the world's leading experts on forest monitoring, including scientists from Universities of Edinburgh and Leicester, plus forest authorities and researchers in each of the partner countries.

Dr Tipper said it can be hard for governments to obtain information about the scale of deforestation and forest degradation, particularly in large rural areas.

"The nature of this particular project is to try to help six different developing countries improve their national forest monitoring systems," he explained.

"Satellites are probably the best way to monitor forest change because forests cover large areas in many remote places. Satellites go round the earth many times a day gathering data.

"The key challenge is systematically getting hold of that data and processing it and then making the information available to the different users in the forestry system, be they at federal, state level or even local level.

"At the moment those information flows are quite rudimentary and fragmented."

He said the systems they put in place should ensure that threats to forests such as fires and illegal logging are detected more quickly.

"It is estimated that improved monitoring systems, which enable a more targeted approach, could help prevent the loss of four to six million hectares of forest over the next decade: that's an area more than half the size of Scotland, or two to three times the size of Wales," Dr Tipper added.

Ecometrica - which currently has 32 staff across bases in the Scottish capital, London, Boston, and Montreal - said the project is due to be completed by March 2020. It claimed the contract is the largest so far to come from the £150m UK Space Agency programme, and follows a competitive tendering process.

Ray Fielding, head of the IPP at the UK Space Agency, said: "We are very pleased to be working with Ecometrica to address deforestation and sustainable forest management for developing nations.

"The programme will identify innovative ways that space technology can help in this important area, which has been identified by the UN as key for sustainable development, and we intend to make a real difference to the people on the ground working to preserve the world's forests."

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