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We can see everything from space. An interview with Olga ... Flipbook PDF

"We can see everything from space". An interview with Olga Gershenzon An interview with Olga Gershenzon, Vice-


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"We can see everything from space". An interview with Olga Gershenzon An interview with Olga Gershenzon, Vice-President of ScanEx RDC, published in ‘Russian Industrialist’ monthly #4 (#136): — Olga, ScanEx today is a prosperous developing company with more than 20-year experience. How did it all start? — Strange as it is, everything started with a school meteo station when I worked at the Meteorological Department of Moscow State University and my future husband – Vladimir Gershenzon – was a member of the Academy of Sciences, radio physicist who was sick and tired of working for the defense industry as he put it himself. We worked together to design a school meteo station and managed to build a station capable of measuring atmospheric parameters. We also developed software to support it. It was just the beginning. Then we got an idea to build another station to receive information from satellites to show our children, for example, the interrelation between cyclone and temperature, pressure, etc. It turned out that such stations were in high demand. We put them into production and within the first several years delivered them to schools and educational centers. Noteworthy the first buyers were from Japan, the United Kingdom and Israel. — I don’t think many schools in Russia could afford such expensive equipment? — In those times a price for the complex totaled about $900. Some of the stations were bought by Russian educational institutions as well; however orders from them were not frequent. Later on we were surprised to find out that our equipment offered to schools was not even installed at Roshydromet. It took us about six years to re-equip the better part of the agency with stations processing information from satellites. In 1996, we designed the first station to receive data from satellite on a PC. I dare say that was a revolutionary step in this sphere. We managed to make data receiving and processing centers very compact. If earlier a 12-meter antenna, an individual building, several operators and a bunch of hi-tech items were needed, our centre was nothing else but a

1.5-2.5-meter and

a

PC

antenna with

an

operator. One needs to mention

in

this

connection that when we unveiled our first centre in Kurgan, the operator was

a

woman

who

lacked any experience with computers and saw the computer mouse for the first time in her life. And she was able to cope with her tasks on the second day. The next three

years

saw

the

opening of 14 similar centers. After that we built stations for Spain, Iran, Vietnam, and post-

Olga Gershenzon, Vice-President of ScanEx RDC

Soviet states. It was a kind of innovative product in its proper meaning. You know, I can talk for hours about our development stages. To make a long story short let me tell you something about today’s ScanEx. We are not a small-business company any longer. Our company is a medium-scale enterprise with about 250 specialists (geographers, map-makers, economists). We also have engineers, physicists. Of course, there are a lot of software developers. ScanEx offers hardware and software data processing complexes, web-services, various software for data processing and proper data as well, i.e. information received from the satellites.

— In other words you are talking about a whole complex of products and services? — Right you are. Also, in this respect our company is unique. In Russia, and maybe the world over, nobody works in a similar way. As a rule, companies here have just one scope of operations whereas we can be described as a horizontally integrated entity. — May I ask you who the prime users of your products are: state-run companies or business structures? — State-run companies with a few exceptions. Strange as it may seem but this is the actual situation. I think private companies will also use our services shortly. As for now, only Lukoil can be regarded our regular client. At the same time we have been working with many state-run enterprises for many years. Cooperation with some of them has been very productive, but IMHO many ministries and departments could be using our potential much wider. — Can you name some structures in close and efficient cooperation with you? — The Emergency Ministry (EMERCOM) is the first to mention. We started working with them 15 years ago. Our cooperation has been given a fresh impetus with the establishment of the National Control Centre for crisis situations. Company’s capabilities are widely used in the situations which require real-time decisions. For example, when the rescuers from the Emergency Ministry were flying to Haiti to take part in liquidation of a devastating quake, they were able to get detailed space images of the search-andrescue areas they were assigned to with 0.5-meter resolution while being onboard the plane. In other words they did not have to lose their precious time under such emergency circumstances to get their bearings on the spot and schedule their plan of actions. The same scenario was used to respond to Fukusima-1 nuclear station catastrophe in Japan last year. No need to say the Emergency Ministry is in close touch with us every time there is an emergency in this country. From our recent experience I can name real-time monitoring of the situation in the vicinity of Saryg-Sep village in the Republic of Tuva where existed a possibility of flooding following several quakes.

— I think your data is also important to fight forest fires? — Sure thing. With our help the Emergency Ministry streamlined a whole system of fire control. However, some regional structures under the Emergency Ministry do not like our participation in this scope. Sometimes the situation looks ridiculous. The case is quite common when the regional units do not want to know what is going on at all. For example, they got a fire alarm from the centre but they say: ‘There is no fire on our territory. It’s a mistake’. In the past, such cases could be described as ‘where nothing is, nothing can be had’. No proof – no fire. However we know better, as we see everything from space. We double check the fire identified with low resolution data with high resolution data and show the image. I recall a situation with our specialist on a busy trip who was given a ‘hearty welcome’ when local Emergency Ministry officials knew he worked for ScanEx. Let’s get back to business. Recently we accomplished a very interesting however important task jointly with the Emergency Ministry to bring peat fires under control. Regular monitoring methods are no good since there is no open fire. We developed a procedure to locate hotbeds of minor peat fires by using data in short wave infrared channel. Actually we keep a close eye on peats on a constant basis, as they are still active to some extend in winter time as well and this fact should not be ignored. Our information and procedures are also widely and successfully used to forecast and fight season and flash floods. Seven years ago Rosleskhoz took a decision to use space imagery to monitor illegal forest felling. This project is being implemented with our direct participation. One needs to mention that we are talking about monitoring of vast areas – some 2 million square kilometers. We still think it would be appropriate to take images of forests in Russia on a monthly rather than yearly basis. This will definitely add to the efficiency of the program which is also efficient in its current form. I am sure our capabilities and projects could be used by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology, Ministry of Nature, Transport Ministry, Ministry of Agriculture, Rosprirodnadzor, etc. to include monitoring of violations in oil and gas-fields developments and condition of water protection zones. A number of projects are under development with various nature protection entities however with limited funding. Today we are technologically ready to exercise continuous monitoring of the entire

Russian shelf, identify oil pollution areas and determine their eventual genesis. I think our ‘ecological’ scope of operation is one of the most promising nowadays. In Russia, the data from Earth remote sensing is not widely used. For example, abroad, in developed countries the results of the Earth remote sensing are widely and diversely used. In Russia the situation is different. Also, our foreign colleagues enjoy more favorable work conditions. — Don’t you think ScanEx activities might interfere with someone else’s? — Let’s put it like this: sometimes our activities are not encouraged by some departments. If you recall, when Google was launched it provided its users with high resolution images from space which initiated hot debates in Russia. Various opinions were expressed. In particular, when asked by Vesti news program I said it was a revolution, a sort of democratic access to data. I fully supported Google. We were in the same boat then. Space images on Yandex are ours. The same news bloc also covered an opinion of a Defense Ministry high ranking official who viewed the situation as a threat to Russia’s security. Yet another example of polar opinions about one and the same thing. Almost all the data we use comes from foreign satellites. The reason being is quite simple: unfortunately now we do not have any Russian Earth remote sensing satellites on orbit which meet certain criteria. I am talking about the ones we can easily get access to. — How critical is this? — It is a big problem. Foreign operators of space systems are not very cooperative and first and foremost they provide data to our actual competitors. We have limitations all the time. Nowadays the problem of fire control is based on two American devices. We are not happy with the level but we don’t have much of a choice. If our satellites were available, our company could enjoy the status of a world player and consolidate the export potential of our country thus adding to Russia’s prestige and increasing its gains. Also, we talk about science-based technologies which leave much to be desired in Russia and cannot compete in the world market. That is why we dream about our own series of satellites. Now that they are not available we develop satellite platforms using our funds and by our own initiative. We have

already invested $0.5 million. I came to Roscosmos one day and asked them to give me a license to start developing components for micro devices. The answer was: ‘No deal. We do not need you as our competitors”. Of course, we didn’t give up the idea and managed to develop a micro device electromagnetic attitude system. It was installed on Chibis-M satellite which was recently launched. The device is operational on orbit unlike many satellites produced by Roscosmos. — It seems that in your case a Russian governmental authority slows down your work to develop science-based developments… — It seems to be the case. I reiterate: we didn’t ask for money, we asked for a license to go ahead with scientific developments which will bear fruit to Russia first of all. Later on we found out that we could get a license but based on the current legislation it would hardly have a legal status. Generally speaking, today’s legal rules are a topic in itself. That made us set up a daughter company Sputniks which at the end of 2011 became a resident of Skolkovo Foundation where a cluster of space technologies and telecommunications was established. Sputniks’ activities are aimed at the development, production and ground tests of perspective elements and systems for small space vehicles. Skolkovo Foundation is our hope. We got the impression that it is vested into the hands of reasonable and professional people, to name Sergei Zhukov, the head of space cluster. Of course, we have a lot of difficulties but this business has become our prime goal in life for me and my husband. There is a feeling we are making the world more transparent. We even set up an independent organization – non-profit-making partnership ‘Transparent World’ -- to go ahead with ecological and educational projects. For many years within the framework of partnership we have been running an Internet contest for school children with our financial support. We invited Roscosmos and Ministry of Education to join our partnership but it was a voice in the desert. We published Ecological Atlas and Atlas of intact forests of Russia and the world. Several non-profit-making projects are also underway. This is really interesting and this is something both the people and Russia need.