Xerra Earth Observation Institute
Xerra Earth Observation Institute (formerly known as the Centre for Space Science Technology) are contracted by MBIE for $14.7 million excluding GST over 5.5 years to June 2022.
MBIE funding details
Successful in their application for Regional Research Institute (RRI) funding in the 2015 call for applications, Xerra Earth Observation Institute received $14.7 million (excl GST) over a 5.5 year period from January 2017 to June 2022.
About the research
Xerra Earth Observation Institute have been contracted to drive innovation and growth in New Zealand by enabling access to, and exploiting, earth observation data. Below is the public statement from our contract with Xerra Earth Observation Institute.
Read the public statement
The Xerra Earth Observation Institute (Xerra) will help drive regional economic growth by enabling access to existing and new satellite and other Earth observation data. In collaboration with allied industries, Xerra are developing products and solutions that incorporate Earth observation data tailored to meet the needs of New Zealand’s regional industries. Xerra will act as an enabler for existing organisations by developing, through a comprehensive and collaborative programme of research and development, new intellectual property that will provide direct benefits to regional industries in the form of improved products and/or services. The research will draw on the capabilities of existing research organisations as well as its own in-house capability in Xerra.
To the extent that its financial viability allows, Xerra will provide open access to data and will invest in research and development and growth at levels appropriate to the needs of New Zealand regional industries. Xerra will create economies of scale and collaborative activities by providing a central point of access for free and commercial satellite data with a focus on data sets of relevance to New Zealand.
Xerra aims to:
i.lower the barriers to accessing and exploiting earth observation data;
ii.develop and deliver products and services that capitalise on the availability of Earth observation data; and
iii.deliver Earth observation data specific to New Zealand.
i.establish an Earth observation data repository;
ii.enable the collaborative development of new Earth observation techniques, data, products and associated services.
Xerra will operate as a research institute focused on delivering benefit to regional industries and New Zealand society as a whole.
Recipients of RRI funding are required to report yearly on the progress of their work programme. Below is the public update from Xerra Earth Observation Institute's annual report.
Read the public update from the 2020/21 annual report
Xerra has made considerable progress towards its commercial objectives. While the RRI grant continues to be our main source of funding, we are steadily reducing our dependence on it. For the second consecutive year, taxable income more than doubled, growing 127% and covering 33% of our operating costs (up from 17% in 2019-20). This income was made up of data sales, grants, product sales, consultancy, contestable research funding, and interest dividends - totalling ~$1.34M. Overall expenditure was ~17% below budget. Xerra achieved the following commercial milestones in 2020-21:Xerra Earth Observation Institute Ltd (Xerra) was set up as a regional research institute in July 2017. As a remote sensing and data analytics company, Xerra is helping improve productivity and speed the pace of innovation in government and industry by turning scientific excellence into impactful, valuable products and services. From the beginning, our goal has been to become financially independent. Our work programmes are designed to generate revenue through a combination of contestable research funding and commercial sales. Xerra’s early focus was on building our in-house research capability by hiring internationally recognised remote sensing scientists from across New Zealand and abroad. Since then, we have focused on developing science-based, commercially viable products and services that combine multiple layers of satellite data, scientific models, and machine learning.
In 2020-21 Xerra contributed to two published papers alongside co-authors from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, among others. Additionally, Xerra was a named contributor to The Future of Commercial Fishing in Aotearoa New Zealand, a report from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Kaitohutohu Mātanga Pūtaiao Matua ki te Pirimia. A paper Xerra co-authored in early 2020, ECOSTRESS: NASA's next generation mission to measure evapotranspiration from the International Space Station, was among the American Geophysical Union journal’s top 10% most downloaded in 2020. Another paper, Analysis of spatiotemporal variability in satellite-derived chlorophyll α to aid the selection of representative sites for lake water quality monitoring, has been submitted to the International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation. Xerra continued its involvement in three Endeavour Fund projects: Matariki—Quantifying environmental resources through high-resolution, automated, satellite mapping of landscape change, Eye on Lakes, and Forest Flows—creating water-resilient landscapes. Adding to this, Xerra signed a three-year contract with the TAIAO project (Time-Evolving Data Science /Artificial Intelligence for Advanced Open Environmental Science), led by the University of Waikato. Dr Lehmann will use his expertise in remote sensing to develop tools to classify lake ecosystem health from the visible light bands on satellite imagery. He was also asked to contribute to the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, the SfTI Biosecurity Tech Mission, and the CSIRO - AquaWatch Australia International Science Advisory Team.
Most of this year’s R&D efforts went towards our Starboard Maritime Intelligence product, culminating in its commercial release in April following beta trials. Starboard delivers a marked improvement in analysts’ ability to monitor oceans for illegal fishing activity, marine reserve incursions, biosecurity threats and anomalous behaviours as possible indicators of drug/illicit goods smuggling and human trafficking. Soon after Starboard’s release, Xerra signed the Ministry for Primary Industries to a three-year contract. Additionally, users trialling the product at numerous NZ government agencies, regional fisheries management organisations, non-governmental organisations and beyond have commented on its value. Therefore, we expect others to follow MPI’s lead and purchase subscriptions in the coming months. Our analysis for the Defence Technology Agency of detections in the high-latitudes and high sea-states using data from the Southern Ocean voyage of RV TANGAROA will assist the RNZN in understanding the challenges of operating in the Southern Ocean and conducting Search and Rescue operations. As Leader/Key Researcher in the Matariki project, Xerra is using satellite data to detect changes in land subsidence and snowpack in the Southern Alps in collaboration with the University of Otago, GNS Science, Meridian Energy and LINZ. Matariki aims to support intelligent hydrogeneration management in a changing climate1, and future-proof national investment in 3D mapping through the Provincial Growth Fund. This early work has already had broader impacts. A commercial firm contracted the University of Otago via the Matariki project to generate 3D change products for the West Coast. Moreover, a successful Deep South National Science Challenge proposal will build off Matariki to make projections about how runoff from New Zealand’s glaciers and seasonal snow will change into the future. As Key Personnel in the Forest Flows programme, Xerra is helping create a biophysical model of forest hydrology to understand catchment-scale water storage and release. This will ensure that the new forests planted through the One Billion Trees programme are strategically situated where they can enhance water resources into the future. Xerra also completed Envirolink grants to enable technology transfer of satellite-derived lake water quality monitoring tools for regional councils, as well as the production of a collaborative satellite data workspace and tools for regional councils.
Our team of six in-house scientists consists of experts in remote sensing, satellite data analytics, data fusion and machine learning. Supporting them is a cross-functional business team with a proven track record, giving us confidence in our ability to transform high-quality research into products and services demanded by domestic and international markets. This year we entered into four science collaborations with the University of Waikato, Science for Technological Innovation National Science Challenge, GNS Science and CSIRO. Xerra also signed 12 collaboration agreements, NDAs and/or MoUs with other organisations and entered into commercial agreements with 17 businesses, government agencies, and regional/local governments. Dr Lehmann has been seconded to the University of Waikato as a Senior Research Fellow, and Dr Kelbe has been based at the University of Otago as an external staff member. We have also integrated international research, with one visiting scholar from Shihezi University in China supporting Dr Lehmann’s hyperspectral imaging project. Our contributions to the NASA ECOSTRESS mission have continued, leading to increasing international awareness of Aotearoa’s uniquely instrumented landscape, with in situ observations covering a diverse range of ecological zones. Our invitation to join NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission will advance observations of global ocean colour, biogeochemistry, and ecology. In the coming year we will use New Zealand’s spectrally diverse lakes as a case study to harmonise in situ observations of phytoplankton with satellite-based hyperspectral reflectance measurements to understand the drivers of harmful algal blooms. These efforts support MBIE’s vision for Aotearoa as a destination for scientists and investment, and complement the NZ Space Agency’s desire for Aotearoa to be a participant in international space missions.
In an effort to further integrate Vision Mātauranga into our work programme, Xerra engaged the Callaghan Innovation Māori economy team to help build our understanding of Vision Mātauranga and improve our Māori engagement plans. The Callaghan representative is helping us establish relationships as Mana Whenua with three different iwi groups, given our geographic spread. Xerra proposed a project to monitor the water quality of Canterbury lakes and developed a joint application with Mahaanui Kurataiao. Mahaanui Kurataiao presented the project idea to Wairewa Runanga, but Runanga hui decided not to go forward with the proposal submission. Dr Lehmann has been engaging with local iwi on water quality and biosecurity. He presented his research on the Rotorua lakes at He Huihuianga Roto Moana of the Te Arawa Lakes Trust. He also attended a Powhiri at Matahuru Marae near Lake Waikare with the TAIAO team. As the Matahuru whanau are mostly interested in improving freshwater health, the student project Dr Lehmann co-supervises was chosen as the pilot project to establish a working relationship. It remains our intent to engage with relevant Māori groups and foster long-term relationships. As key stakeholders in environmental sustainability, and custodians of important indigenous knowledge, we recognise that Māori can both benefit from, and partner in, our endeavours to build a better New Zealand.
The Board continued its oversight role, meeting eight times throughout the year with two additional Audit & Risk Committee meetings. The Board also conducted a two-day strategy session and review of CEO performance. A full external audit of 2019-20’s financial results was conducted by Crowe and preliminary results presented at the Annual General Meeting. This was a successful meeting, attended by members of the Board, Space Science Technology Trust, staff, and stakeholders. This was preceded by a joint meeting of the Board and Trust. Xerra’s Strategic Advisory Panel provided advice on research topics and funding priorities to ensure both our research programme and product development remain industry-led. They assessed the data science and research underpinning Starboard, as well as our work plan for the COVID-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund. They also reviewed Xerra's approach to Vision Mātauranga and made helpful recommendations which were subsequently implemented. The Panel judged Xerra’s research to be sound and remarked that Starboard was providing highly accurate, useful information. They commented that Xerra was creating a unique value proposition for New Zealand.
Xerra has made considerable progress towards its commercial objectives. While the RRI grant continues to be our main source of funding, we are steadily reducing our dependence on it. For the second consecutive year, taxable income more than doubled, growing 127% and covering 33% of our operating costs (up from 17% in 2019-20). This income was made up of data sales, grants, product sales, consultancy, contestable research funding, and interest dividends - totalling ~$1.34M. Overall expenditure was ~17% below budget. Xerra achieved the following commercial milestones in 2020-21:
- $850,000 from a commercialisation grant through the CIAF;
- Xerra’s first two international contracts secured;
- Xerra’s first contract to monitor the oceans in support of a multinational operation; and
- Xerra’s first multi-year subscription contract.
Starboard’s sales pipeline is active with more than a dozen organisations trialling it.
Although the path toward self-sustainability remains challenging, this year’s results show that we are heading in the right direction.