Bridging Science and Society: NARSS’s Impact on Egypt’s Development and Technological Progress

Prof Islam Abou El-Magd, the President of NARSS

The National Authority for Remote Sensing & Space Sciences (NARSS) is Egypt’s (and North Africa’s) oldest governmental institute dedicated to space technology and remote sensing. Its roots can be traced back to 1971 when it operated as a Center for Sensing and Space Technology. During this early phase, NARSS was crucial in receiving and processing data, including valuable information from Landsat, via its ground receiving station.

Over the years, NARSS underwent significant development and transformation. In 1991, it achieved a significant milestone when it was elevated to national authority by a Presidential decree. This advancement allowed NARSS to focus on research, technological advancements, and remote sensing and space technology applications. In 1994, it was officially established as a governmental National Research Institute with the specific mission of advancing remote sensing applications and space technology in Egypt. NARSS’ core objectives are centred around capacity development and strengthening in space technology and remote sensing, contributing significantly to developing advanced applications in these areas by continuously pushing the boundaries of innovation and research.

During this interview, Prof Islam Abou El-Magd, the President of NARSS, discusses how NARSS has significantly influenced Egypt’s (and Africa’s) involvement and advancements in space exploration and technology.

Can you provide an overview of NARSS’s accomplishments since its establishment in promoting sustainable development through remote sensing and space sciences?

One of our most significant milestones was the successful design, manufacture, and launch of Egypt’s first Earth observation (EO) satellite, EgyptSat-1. This remarkable feat was accomplished by a team of around 65 skilled engineers in Egypt who built and assembled the satellite subsystems. The satellite was launched in April 2007 and operated flawlessly, remaining in orbit and providing data downlink until October 2010. EGYPTSAT-1’s successful mission marked our entry as a space technology and earth intelligence institution.

After the success of EgyptSat-1, we continued to advance and successfully developed two nanosatellites, NARSScube-1 and NARSScube-2, launched in 2019. These satellites were a testament to NARSS’s capacity to design, manufacture, and launch small test cubesats into orbit, further highlighting Egypt’s position in the global space community. Furthermore, our commitment to advancing satellite technology is evident in developing various camera payloads and software. These endeavours aim to enhance imaging capabilities, enabling valuable data acquisition for various applications, including agriculture and environmental monitoring, urban planning, and disaster management.

Another notable achievement was the modulation and upgrade of our data-receiving station. By improving our capabilities, the station can receive a broad spectrum of satellite data, including information from renowned satellite missions like Landsat and SPOT (Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre) programme. This upgrade signified our dedication to expanding our remote sensing capabilities and staying at the forefront of satellite data reception and analysis.

Moreover, we collaborate with other space agencies and institutions, engaging in payload integration projects and contributing our expertise to missions with multiple satellite components. These collaborations enhance our presence in the international space community while fostering knowledge exchange and furthering advancements in space technology.

What strategies or approaches does NARSS employ to develop local, national and international collaborations and serve Egypt’s strategic goals in remote sensing and space sciences?

As a prominent research institute operating under the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, we have a clear mandate to conduct cutting-edge research and contribute to capacity development. Our close integration with universities allows us to foster partnerships that lead to various educational opportunities. These include summer courses, short-term training programmes, professional diplomas, and even opportunities for ambitious engineers to pursue Master’s and PhD degrees.

For instance, our collaboration with universities and educational institutions enables us to offer various physical and online courses in space technology and its applications. This approach facilitates the rapid and comprehensive development of talented Egyptian engineers.

Similarly, we aim to contribute to achieving the National Agenda 2030 and align with global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This commitment to national goals allows us to provide various applications and services contributing to Egypt’s overall progress and development. We play a vital role in critical sectors such as agriculture and food security, environment, mineral resources, urban planning, and coastal and marine management. Using advanced remote sensing and space technology, we provide valuable information, data, and reports to the government, supporting their decision-making processes and strategic planning.

For instance, our agriculture and food security applications assist in crop health monitoring and assessment, enabling better agricultural practices and increased productivity. In environmental management, we employ our resources to monitor and address issues like oil spill incidents in our marine economic zone. Such activities contribute to environmental conservation and protection. Also, urban planning benefits from our data-driven insights, helping authorities efficiently manage city development and infrastructure. Additionally, our expertise extends to coastal and marine applications, where we provide valuable information for the sustainable use and conservation of marine resources.

Furthermore, our strong emphasis on partnerships and collaborations with various stakeholders, including universities and research institutes, creates a rich knowledge exchange and capacity-building ecosystem. This approach empowers our researchers, youth, and academia, enabling them to contribute actively to advancing space technology and its applications domestically and globally.

NARSS has been involved in three satellite projects (EgyptSat-1, NARSScube 1 and 2). What future satellite projects does NARSS have in the pipeline? Could you provide some insights into their intended purposes and their anticipated impact?

Currently, NARSS is working on a 6U satellite dedicated to agricultural monitoring, revolutionising how we track and analyse agricultural activities from space. The satellite is expected to be completed and ready for launch within 18 months, targeting a potential launch window in Q4 2024 or Q1 2025. This ambitious project involves collaboration between engineers and academic staff within NARSS’s space technology division.

The satellite aims to employ cutting-edge remote sensing technologies to gather crucial data on agricultural practices, crop health, land usage, and environmental factors. Doing so will facilitate informed decision-making and empower agricultural stakeholders to optimise their productivity, resource allocation, and sustainability efforts.

This project, which just advanced from the mission definition stage, will be entirely manufactured in our laboratory, like the previous satellites we worked on. Our goal is to bolster our industrial capacity in space technology. To achieve this, we intend to conduct multiple exercises and missions to ensure that our space industry remains competitive in the future. By consistently pushing the boundaries of our capabilities, we aim to solidify Egypt’s position in the global space arena and make significant contributions to space exploration and technology advancements.

With each passing day, the team at NARSS is working tirelessly to bring this groundbreaking project to fruition, eagerly awaiting the moment when this cutting-edge satellite takes flight and begins its mission to transform the future of agriculture in the region.

Are the individuals who worked on the previous satellites going to be involved in developing this new satellite, or are you planning to bring in a new team?

Most experienced engineers and senior staff who worked on the previous satellites are now part of the Egypt Space Agency. However, we have actively recruited a new generation of engineers to ensure continuity and expand our capabilities while engaging more experienced personnel to guide the new team. Similarly, academic staff members are involved in satellite projects and continue collaborating with us.

Building and retaining a skilled workforce ensures a seamless transfer of knowledge and expertise from experienced personnel to the younger generation. Nurturing and engaging this diverse pool of engineers and graduates is pivotal to our success. It fosters innovation and technological advancements and strengthens Egypt’s position in the global space arena. As we continue to invest in capacity building and knowledge sharing, we are well-equipped to meet the challenges and opportunities in the dynamic field of space technology.

What are the potential benefits and applications of NARSS’s satellite manufacturing capabilities beyond scientific research? Are there any plans to explore commercial opportunities or collaborations with other industries in utilising the satellite technology developed by NARSS?

The impact of our manufacturing prowess transcends scientific research. For instance, the institution envisions exploring commercial opportunities and fostering collaborations with other industries to utilise the satellite technology we develop. 

We recognise the importance of comprehensive data for practical applications. While our 6U satellite focuses on agricultural monitoring, we understand that relying solely on one or two data sources may not meet all requirements. Thus, we form partnerships with other satellite operators to ensure thorough and accurate data, combining data from multiple sources to cater to various needs. This collaborative approach enables them to offer ready-made applications and services that align with government and societal demands.

By diversifying our data acquisition methods and forging collaborations with other industries, we aim to optimise our potential for providing valuable and impactful solutions. This approach reinforces our position as a leading authority in remote sensing and space technology, with the ability to contribute significantly to various sectors and applications that benefit Egypt and the global community.

In what ways does NARSS contribute to the development and growth of the domestic space industry? Are there any initiatives or programmes to foster local talent and develop infrastructure to strengthen scientific research in Egypt?

NARSS is at the forefront as the first in the region to have a receiving station. Efforts are underway to transform it into a universal receiving station offering services and contributions to North Africa, Africa, and beyond. In addition, discussions are ongoing with various vendors and partners to establish agreements enabling the station to receive data from numerous satellites, expanding its coverage to large geographical areas in Africa.

The announcement of this transformative project is eagerly anticipated as we continue to position ourselves as a regional and continental leader in space technology and remote sensing applications.

How does NARSS promote the publication of scientific culture in society, and what measures are taken to foster a strong link between education and scientific research to support scientific thinking among students?

We place significant importance on contributing to the scientific culture in society. To achieve this, we organise awareness sessions and have established a virtual reality lab that allows students of all ages, from kindergarten to university, to experience augmented reality related to space technology, satellite assembly, and data analysis.

Additionally, we conduct summer schools and offer specific online and in-person training internships to enhance education and cultural awareness. Our commitment to education is evident in developing curricula for remote sensing and space technology for Egyptian students to build a scientifically aware and well-equipped generation that can actively participate in the country’s scientific and technological advancement.

What challenges has NARSS encountered in its endeavours, and how has the organisation addressed them to continue its mission effectively?

In recent years, NARSS faced significant challenges, mainly due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused delays in achieving some targets and timelines. Additionally, global political situations, such as the Sudan problem and conflicts like Russia-Ukraine, have also affected certain activities in the space sector and application development.

Despite these challenges, NARSS remains determined to pursue its ambitious goals through strategic partnerships. An example is integrating with the African Space Agency, which is hosted in Egypt. By joining forces with the African Space Agency, NARSS aims to make a broader and more meaningful contribution to the African community regarding space technology and applications.

The vision is to foster peace, technological advancements, and applications that can positively impact Africa’s development and prosperity. NARSS views this collaboration as an opportunity to harness collective expertise, resources, and knowledge to advance regional space-related endeavours.

Despite external obstacles, NARSS remains resilient in its dedication to driving progress and achieving its mission. By leveraging partnerships, embracing innovation, and overcoming challenges, NARSS is poised to continue making significant strides in the space domain, nationally and continentally.

Looking ahead, what are the plans and aspirations of NARSS in further advancing remote sensing and space sciences in Egypt, and how do you envision the organisation’s role in the coming years?

Currently, we are in the process of developing our software framework dedicated to remote sensing applications. This framework is designed to serve on a national and cross-border level. To leverage the power of artificial intelligence, we are actively promoting the integration of AI algorithms. As part of this initiative, NARSS has secured agreements with partners to deploy these advanced algorithms on satellites, enabling the direct acquisition of processed and analysed information.

Furthermore, we are working on integrating multiple data sources, leveraging deep learning and machine learning technologies. The goal is to offer comprehensive services that harness the potential of diverse data streams, enabling more accurate and sophisticated analyses.

Recognising the rapid advancement of technology globally, we aspire to position ourselves as a leading institution, offering innovative solutions to society. However, our focus extends to enhancing social and economic development, contributing significantly to Egypt’s economy, and supporting the broader African agenda. 

Similarly, ensuring the relevance of our outcomes and services to stakeholders is of utmost importance at NARSS. We aim to further engage with national stakeholders in specific applications, collaborating with ministries such as Agriculture, Urban Planning, Water Resources, and Environment to address their unique challenges.

Our approach involves going beyond static solutions to adopting dynamic platforms allowing stakeholders to access data through dashboards and regular reports. This innovation will enable continuous monitoring and improvement of the applications, with research and development efforts leading to scientific publications and contributions to the broader scientific community.

By fostering these partnerships and adopting an innovative, dynamic approach, we aim to continue serving our stakeholders effectively and position ourselves as a financially sustainable and impactful research institute.

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