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Regional Research Institutes Initiative
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- Xerra Earth Observation Institute
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- New Zealand Institute for Minerals to Materials Research
- PlantTech Research Institute
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MBIE funding details
In 2021 Xerra Earth Observation Institute received $7 million (excl GST) for the Starboard Platform over a 2 year period from July 2021 to June 2023
About the research
Xerra Earth Observation Institute have been contracted to support the transition to a financially self-sustaining, independent organisation. Below is the public statement from our contract with Xerra Earth Observation Institute.
Read the public statement
Xerra Earth Observation Institute is a regional research institute offering science-based products and services. Xerra uncovers problems that are hard to solve and best tackled with Earth Observation and remote sensing technologies. Headquartered in Alexandra, its aim is to unlock the potential of Earth Observation data to benefit all, especially Aotearoa New Zealand.
Xerra launched Starboard Maritime Intelligence in May 2021. The cloud-based platform provides teams with comprehensive views of maritime activity and powerful tools for analysis. Starboard combines multiple layers of satellite data, scientific models, machine learning (ML) models and other information to enable nations to effectively analyse, monitor and protect their maritime domain in an increasingly complex maritime security environment.
This 2-year fixed term contract with MBIE will support Xerra’s transition to a financially self-sustaining, independent organisation. The $6.999M from 1 July 2021 to 30 June 2023 will fund the pursuit to commercialise Starboard via the establishment of a subsidiary company and the continuous development of the product’s technical capability. Business development activities will include entering international markets, expanding the total addressable market and attracting external investors.
The programme of work is a combination of technology development, advanced feature development and science-based analytics. Xerra will continue its global market and user research work, ensuring its efforts remain market-led to inform brand positioning, support international sales and influence its roadmap.
As part of its efforts to improve performance, Xerra will refine its automated, end-to-end pipeline for ingesting satellite data and detecting vessels. It will match this data with coincident automatic identification system (AIS) data to determine if a detected vessel is a non-reporting dark vessel. Xerra will also revise its current framework for rendering data from multiple sources and vendors to better organise, monitor, document and recover in the event of a disaster.
New ML algorithms will help with rapid identification of events, as well as vessels and linkages that previously went undetected. Xerra will add more advanced features including combining complex algorithms that detect noteworthy vessel events. Users will be able to set custom alerts and analyse specific behaviours within customer-defined areas. ML models will be used to identify ‘anomalous-behaviour’ events, similar to existing ‘encounters’, ‘fishing’, and other events. Users will be able to filter out large numbers of vessels acting normally and focus on the small number of vessels performing unexpected manoeuvres.
A well-known but poorly understood facet of maritime domain awareness (MDA) is the relationships vessels have with other vessels at sea, with ports of call, and with onshore networks of owners and operators. Xerra will work to better understand how to flag additional activities authorities need to be aware of, including the smuggling of illicit goods, human rights abuses, human trafficking and other criminal offences at sea.
Understanding vessel movements through time helps researchers and policy analysts make better informed decisions. Examples include identifying best locations to establish marine reserves, or calling attention to ports of high regulatory interest. Starboard’s pre-processed vessel movement and port visit histories, coupled with a powerful and intuitive query interface, can turn an expensive, month-long exercise into a query that takes minutes. Starboard will facilitate better decision-making about how to protect our marine environment by enabling policy and maritime analysts to answer complex questions themselves, dramatically improving workflow efficiency and awareness of maritime activity.
Starboard currently implements rules for assessing specific biosecurity threats and automatically flags vessels that have visited risk-prone ports prior to their arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand. As Xerra learns more about issues like biofouling and other challenges its customers face, e.g. climate change impacts on fish species migration and species distribution, Xerra will develop methods to help analyse large and complicated data sets. These methods may include machine learning, multivariate statistical models and expert elicitation to identify vessel traffic coupled with biosecurity inspection data.
While executing its technology development programme, Xerra will continue to expand its sales and external investment strategies. This includes expanding its New Zealand customer base and entering international markets with a sales presence in nations which have large maritime borders. Xerra will seek out appropriate sales channels to enter the Australian, Pacific Ocean and African markets. These are places where enhanced MDA can benefit government agencies, regional organisations and non-governmental organisations looking to protect marine environments. Xerra will position itself for future venture capital by making its governance and cost structure appealing to outside investors. In the contract’s second year, Xerra will begin its capital raise efforts.
The Earth Observation market is evolving and subject to unanticipated shifts in the marketplace and government policy. It is imperative Xerra continue to probe the market and customer demand for science-derived products and services. As the world grapples with climate change, Xerra will look for ways in which its research can contribute to becoming better guardians of our land, soil and water.
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 2021/22 annual report
Starboard® Maritime Intelligence (Starboard(external link)) is subscription-based software that provides teams with a comprehensive view of maritime activity and powerful tools for analysis. The Starboard platform helps government agencies and environmentally-focused organisations monitor and protect their maritime domain by turning large and complex datasets, from Earth observation (EO) and other sources, into intuitive and insightful tools for analysts. It helps nations tackle complex maritime challenges, ranging from risk assessing arriving vessels to detecting illegal fishing and uncovering non-reporting dark vessels.
Starboard is the flagship product of Xerra Earth Observation Institute, a remote sensing and data analytics company offering science-based products and services that help improve productivity and speed the pace of innovation in government and industry.
The Starboard platform was launched in April 2021 and has a growing customer base using both subscription and one-off operation services. Customers range from government agencies through to individual oceans researchers and human rights and environmental advocates.
What makes Starboard unique is the direct relationship between our research team and the end-users, building new tools based on leading-edge research conducted by our in-house science team and research collaborators. Our approach to research and development is to build quickly, gather customer feedback early, and iterate continuously on features that uniquely solve customer problems. This approach led to the growth of Starboard since launch, and its ongoing impact since that time.
Our focus over the past financial year has been on accelerating the development of core Starboard functionality and new product features*.
Starboard started in 2020 by delivering advanced vessel monitoring and analysis in the Tasman Sea for New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). Since then we have rapidly grown our capabilities and are now trusted providers to MPI, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), New Zealand Customs Service, the Environmental Justice Foundation, and others under the software as a service model.
As a result of the work done over the past two years, Starboard is now delivering a marked improvement in analysts’ ability to monitor oceans for illegal fishing activity, marine reserve incursions, biosecurity threats and anomalous behaviours.
We continue to deliver scientific excellence and science impact through the Starboard platform, while making strides towards financial sustainability.
*A summary of released features, and plans for future development, is available on the Starboard website: https://starboard.nz/software/roadmap/(external link)
Starboard has prioritised a “little r, big D” approach to our research programme, which has enabled us to accelerate the delivery of new research through connected, iterative, and interactive prototyping with end-users, while our multidisciplinary team has enabled Starboard to generate new insights at a scale that would be challenging in a more traditional research environment.
Although the dissemination of this work does not lend itself to traditional publication, the work is no less innovative. Starboard brings together researchers, engineers, and business experts in-house under a common purpose, in line with Te Ara Paerangi - Future Pathways’ ambition to connect the research, science and innovation ecosystem.
At Xerra, researchers work closely with Starboard product designers and end-users to understand the specific needs customers are facing — ensuring the science is relevant and commercially valuable. Researchers work with back-end engineers to efficiently access and analyse an unprecedented volume of real-time, global data (30 million messages per day) — enabling cutting-edge science at scale. Our research team also works with front-end developers to publish novel algorithm prototypes in an interactive and intuitive environment, enabling rapid feedback. Finally they work with marketing and sales personnel to get new research into the hands of engaged users.
An example of this is our biosecurity work. We heard from target vessel evaluators at MPI that prioritising arriving vessels inspections for gypsy moth or Brown marmorated stink bug is a very manual and time-consuming process, based on comparing self-reported port calls schedules with risk areas and periods in the Craft Risk Management Standard. Starboard currently holds a three-year repository of vessel transponder data — over 25 billion ship positions — and automatically identifies port visits in real time. We worked collaboratively to pair MPI analysts’ deep understanding of this topic with our expertise in data analysis, remote sensing, and software design to create a model that automatically flags arriving vessels for hitchhiker pest risk. This earned Xerra the Supreme Winner, GIA Industry Award and Mondiale VGL Innovation Award for the 2021 New Zealand Biosecurity Awards.
We have seen the success of this approach in the market, securing both contestable funding and commercial revenue.
Commercialisation of research through software as a service (SaaS) provides the greatest avenue to both science impact and commercial sustainability for Xerra and Starboard. It allows us to escape the fundamental limits of traditional research consultancy where growth is limited by staff headcount.
The research that underpins Starboard is already making societal impact through improving the delivery of public service and enabling a better understanding of and resilience to maritime risk. It also continues to make environmental impacts, providing new insights to protect subantarctic islands and prevent illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU). In each of these areas, our connected, adaptable, and resilient team has enabled us to deliver impactful science at scale.
We published five impact case studies to showcase new product features and test market fit.
- Starboard: network analysis(external link) explores experimental work to elucidate vessels with hidden links to known offenders through network analysis of offshore encounters. An interactive visualisation allows end-users to understand and evaluate complex research in an intuitive way.
- Starboard for biosecurity(external link) looks at how nations can reduce the risk of invasive species entering via maritime borders.(external link)
- Starboard for fisheries monitoring(external link) looks at turning data into insights for effective fisheries monitoring.
- Starboard: satellite surveillance(external link) looks at how to plan, task and analyse satellite data for greater situational awareness. (external link)
- Starboard: overview(external link) summarises how we marry advanced data science and multiple information sources with intuitive web-based software to deliver a secure common operating picture for the maritime domain.
In addition, we've published over 35 articles on our help website(external link) to explain specific use cases and help new users understand and apply product features to their domain.
Over 50 news and media pieces have also highlighted Starboard’s growing impact in the sector both within New Zealand and internationally.
Capability development (investing in people)
Over the past year we have been fortunate to retain our team of six scientists, as well as add two new machine learning roles. We now have eight scientists in-house, made up of experts in remote sensing, data science, and machine learning.
Xerra’s mandate to deliver industry-led R&D has enabled us to build a diverse team for Starboard spanning the product development cycle from ideation through to market release and beyond. Our in-house scientists are supported by two product designers, a three-person sales and marketing team, and a growing team of eleven software engineers. This cross-functional team, with a proven track record, provides us with the means to both conduct relevant research as well as commercialise that research in house, and efficiently deliver the effective solutions in a fast changing world.
To date, our business and engineering teams have been able to grow with the needs of the organisation, welcoming highly skilled staff with leadership experience in technology start-ups, product designers, engineers, and sales and marketing staff. These roles are all critical to our ability to deliver value through Starboard.
The strategic governance and oversight of the Starboard product is provided through the Xerra Board of Directors. This includes the appointment of Trent Fulcher as the new Chief Executive in July 2022. Trent joins the team with leadership experience in the realms of international market development, turning complex technology into marketable products, and growing high performing teams — which will be highly valuable to the growth of Starboard.
While still a relatively new product, Starboard’s commercial sales through subscription customers, one-off digital operations, and consultancy sales are steadily increasing.
It is Starboard’s mission to create the most powerful maritime domain awareness and analysis platform in the world. This mission, and validation of the market potential through early sales, continues to shape the direction of our applied research, development, and commercial activity going forward.