Industry-based science for peace and de-velopment


On the World Science Day for Peace and Development I’d like to share with you my modest experience doing industry-based science. At first sight it might seem odd that a profit-seeking company could be a source of science and a force for development and sustainability, but it turns out to be just so.

My approach to this question will be based on quotes by people of unimpeachable solidity.

Science is humankind’s progressive approach to the real world (Max Planck)

When I was at university I dreamed about staying on after my degree to work on the development of cutting-edge technology. I was studying computer science and all the talk was about neural nets, artificial intelligence, semantic networks. We got together in offices to propose new lines of research and argue about the most promising ones. It was then that I received the GMV job offer and decided to opt for this new life stage, change my city and switch from academic to company-based research. Beset by the logical uncertainties of such a radical change of direction, I began by working on MERIS, an optical sensor of the European Space Agency’s last great satellite (in terms of sheer size). MERIS used neural nets, Look Up Tables of infinite size, hundreds of thousands of code lines, algorithms originally defined by foreign firms and implemented and honed (in some cases) by us, joint validations. We were doing science, maybe lower-case science; for example we converted telemetry chains measured from a sensor orbiting at a height of 790 kms to readings of sea color.

At heart, we scientists are lucky people: we can play every game our whole life long (Lee Smolin)

Fast forward a few years. GMV’s earth observation business has soared. Whenever we are presenting GMV’s activities to young people, I always like to tell them “we’re never bored here”: one minute we’re studying vineyards in Spain, then soil erosion in Kirghizstan or working with the world bank to estimate carbon emissions and their sequestration by biomass.

Another time we might be working on the fusion of radar and optical data, validating the results with weather stations and in situ sensors. We get scientific treatises published in top-level magazines, cast-iron proof that research is part of GMV’s lifeblood.

We work with go-getting universities on the most varied themes and we are used to running consortia with scores of partners, each one with its own specific weight; we never stop playing, as Smolin says. Mind you, we must never lose sight of the next quote …

Science never solves a problem without creating ten more. George Bernard Shaw

The services called for are becoming increasingly precise and influential, helping us out in humanitarian emergencies like floods, earthquakes or droughts. We analyze human migratory routes, monitor the sprawl of refugee camps and identify ships lost at sea.

One of the most satisfying moments came when, in the context of planned operations for FRONTEX, we were asked to analyze radar images of the Alboran Sea, following an alert about a boat filled with immigrants lost on the high seas. Cue the perfect sequence, and we were able to access a real-time image that enabled us to identify a potential object. As a result of this identification and the actions of the rescue forces, 38 people (including 8 women and 3 children) were saved from certain death.

We’ll wind up these reflections with a quote from someone who knows what he’s talking about ….

“Development is the new name for peace” POPE JOHN PAUL II

We are bound to wonder what the future holds in store for us. The current situation shows that, at the very least, we have to know how to adapt our modus operandi to changing situations. But science is exactly this: adaptation in action, working from the available store of knowledge to develop new solutions, seeking to understand our planet better so that we can all live together in peace and harmony.

 Author: Antonio Tabasco Cabezas

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