October 26, 2020

PART 4 – From Cluster AF to Earth Observation Center (EOC)

A milestone of functional effectiveness and inner cohesion of Clusters AF in Oberpfaffenhofen was situating most of the departments in two neighbouring buildings, 121 (the traditional DFD premises since 1989) and 122, an old existing building that had its best years behind it and needed renovation. However, the original plan was to use the overhauled build chiefly to house the Institute of Communication and Navigation (IKN), which was led by my colleague, Prof. Christoph Günter. This would leave large parts of IMF and also of DFD scattered all over the research centre. I was convinced that that would be a big mistake and that we now had a “historic” opportunity to bring applied remote sensing activities also physically closer. I well remember our institute colloquium in autumn 2007, attended by the DLR Executive Board member responsible for dealing with our affairs, Prof. Achim Bachem. After a satisfying day of compelling lectures and interesting discussions I used the occasion to speak with Mr Bachem as he left DFD. “I’d like to make another request…”, I began. I remember saying that this was a unique opportunity to concentrate earth observation activities also physically, increasing their visibility, and that we needed a reversal of the decision on the use of building 122. Professor Bachem was always an open-minded and very pleasant conversational partner, who with his Rhineland impishness could come up with good, convincing answers, especially in critical situations. I knew that I only had this one chance. I remember how he paused for a moment, then looked at me almost incredulously, as if he had only then realized the situation. He then dryly answered, “OK Mr Dech, send me a proposal” and left the building with a smile. This was our chance, the door was again open a crack. But first the entire Oberpfaffenhofen research centre had to be convinced, Prof. Bachem later stipulated as the precondition for his consent. I certainly remember how difficult it was to get the concurrence of the Oberpfaffenhofen “leadership group” (the local administrative heads and all the institute directors). Christoph Günther abstained from voting, which was certainly understandable from his point of view. It was indeed rather painful to have to get priority for one’s own interests over other (likewise justified) interests, but we were convinced in this case that it was correct. And as so often, things developed in a positive direction. The economic and financial crisis of 2008/2009 led to the launch of a state economic stimulus programme, with IKN obtaining financing for its own, completely new institute building located to the south of building 122. I can see it today from my office on the 3rd floor of building 122, and I always enjoy looking at “MS Günther” (from a distance the building really does resemble an ocean liner).

Renovation of EOC building 122 and alterations to DFD building 121
The EOC atrium emerges: September 2009, nine months before the opening.
Renovation of EOC building 122 and alterations to DFD building 121
Right: The passageway connecting building 121 under construction.

So building 122 was completely renovated and in 2010 handed over to fill its new purpose. A new annex provided room for a wonderful atrium. Up on the 3rd floor the flags of all nations represented at EOC by its staff members flutter in the wind whenever the skylights are open. The building housing almost the entire IMF staff in Oberpfaffenhofen, the DFD International Ground Segment (Dr Erhard Diedrich succeeded Klaus Reiniger in 2007 as department head), our science communication department, the joint controlling department (since 2003 under the leadership of Hans Voß), and the office of the two EOC heads needed its own name!

Increasingly, the term “earth observation” had become the customary term for remote sensing of Earth, particularly for DLR programmes. Internationally, “earth observation” had also more or less become the term for satellite remote sensing of Earth. So Earth Observation Center (EOC) was initially the designation for a building complex in Oberpfaffenhofen. The official opening on July 10, 2010 was the splendid highlight of the political recognition of our institute cluster. The who’s who of leading figures were present, including ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain. Philipp Hartl and Walter Kröll gave impressive speeches and proudly looked back at what commenced with Cluster AF in 2000. Federal Minister of Economic Affairs Rainer Brüderle and Bavarian State Minister of Economic Affairs Martin Zeil were the apex of those present with political renown. Not only for our Executive Board Chairman Prof. Jan Wörner and Executive Board Member Thomas Reiter, who had in the meantime succeeded Mr. Bachem, was it a day of celebration at DLR. Prof. Kröll noted in an entertaining speech that Cluster AF was today the center for earth observation in Germany and for a long time has been on the way to becoming the Earth Observation Center also internationally. A through pass...

Celebration after the Formal opening of the EOC building July 10, 2010
Group photo taken after the welcoming speeches.
From left to right: DLR Space Affairs Board Member Dr Thomas Reiter, Prof. Richard Bamler, Prof. Stefan Dech. Bavarian State Minister Martin Zeil, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, Federal Minister of Economic Affairs Rainer Brüderle and DLR Executive Board Chairman Johann-Dietrich „Jan“ Wörner

With the entire staff and our guests we celebrated until late in the night an intoxicating, unforgettable party with live music from the band Schotterhaufen. Later the same year the DLR Executive Board decided on the basis of our proposal to officially give the Applied Remote Sensing Cluster the new name Earth Observation Center (EOC). This formally established EOC as an impactful trademark of our institute alliance. Between 2011 and 2014 we also managed with money we had been saving for the purpose to extensively renovate the traditional DFD premises in building 121 (informally known as the banana because of its shape) and to completely renovate the space assigned to us in building 133 where the two EOC atmosphere departments were to be housed. In this connection the establishment of EOC Service Labs on the ground floor of building 121 should not be overlooked. With the ZKI situation room and the reference platform for environment and disaster information systems, as well as an address for the World Data Center for Remote Sensing of the Atmosphere (WDC-RSAT) we not only created functionally necessary infrastructure, but also impressive facilities for suitably presenting our research. The Service Lab was dedicated in September 2010 by Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, and in 2013 Federal President Joachim Gauck paid us a visit and heard our lectures in the ZKI situation room, accompanied by his wife and the Seehofer couple.

Formal opening of the EOC-Service Lab on September 2, 2010 by Premier Horst Seehofer
(here during a presentation at the new reference platform)
A welcome is extended to German President Joachim Gauck and DLR Executive Board Chairman Jan Wörner in front of the ZKI situation room

Nicht verheimlichen will ich an dieser Stelle, dass noch kein/e amtierende/r Bundeskanzler/in zu Besuch war. Auch wenn Herr Seehofer bei seinem letzten Besuch versprach, Frau Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel nach Oberpfaffenhofen einzuladen, so wurde dieses Versprechen bis heute noch nicht eingelöst. Aber man braucht ja immer auch Ziele...

The fourth decade up to 2020

Over the past 10 years at DFD, among other activities we increased our efforts to again noticeably improve our science competence. This can be seen quite objectively in the growing number of science publications in peer-reviewed journals of international repute. At the same time we expanded, and where necessary modernized, our major technical infrastructure at the ground stations in Neustrelitz, Oberpfaffenhofen, in the Antarctic and in the Canadian Arctic. Our technological systems for processing data have likewise been brought up to date. We developed In GeoFarm the first in-house HPDA (High Performance Data Analytics) infrastructure, and by regularly replacing the structures and technologies at the German Satellite Data Archive (D-SDA) we also laid the foundation for our present collaboration with LRZ and other organizations. Without a long-term archive and the possibility to reload, whenever required, historic data sets or those not normally available on-line, present platforms in the cloud, which can provide only a portion of the data, are only half as powerful as they could be. The fruits of these efforts could be harvested already at our second cluster evaluation in 2013. A more than positive vote certified our leading international role in the field of satellite-supported earth observation and gave us all a great deal of satisfaction.

Setting up and dedicating ISSF 2010 in Inuvik, Canada

As to science, in the past decade we have gained international attention through our diverse methodological innovations. These include the use of machine learning approaches, and large, internationally visible projects and self-developed data products relating to the atmosphere, air quality and health, dynamics of land surfaces and their water bodies, and urban spaces, examples being GUF  and a current World Settlement Footprint (WSF) product series. Our publications in international, peer-reviewed journals could be raised to a new level. Our science department heads have meanwhile been appointed to university professorships in Augsburg, Würzburg and at TU Munich, either in a joint or parallel selection process together with these universities (Prof. Michael Bittner, DFD-ATM , Prof. Claudia Künzer, DFD-LAX , Prof. Günter Strunz (DFD-GZS ). Next-generation young scientists have been mentored up to the post-doctoral level and prepared for greater responsibilities. Guest scientists from around the world work at our facilities, and some of our own scientists spend their sabbaticals abroad where they gain valuable experience. At the initiative of my chair at Würzburg University, Christopher Conrad, Martin Wegmann, Claudia Künzer and others established an international Master’s course of study, EAGLE , in 2016. It has great appeal for students and is already linking us with upcoming scientists and influencing the latest generation of our doctoral candidates.

Corona-conform photograph of our latest generation of EAGLE-students.
International and with power-women! Source: Dr Martin Wegmann, October, 2020

Over half of our 230 staff members at DFD are working in remote sensing or the geosciences. In both key areas DFD is equally successful in obtaining third-party funding. Over half of our personnel costs are financed by projects that we have ourselves acquired or through our participation in missions. We offer a dynamic, highly competent team that includes outstanding personalities. Looking back on the Remote Sensing Applications department (WT-DA-FE) of 1985 and its staff of about 15, from which today’s DFD research activities have emerged, I realize that such a development was possible at only a few places. With good arguments, persistence and commitment one can still today make almost anything possible at DLR.

The WT-DA-FE department in 1986. Department head Dr Rudolf Winter (3rd from left, top row).
Still with us today: Gunter Schreier (left), Stefan Dech (left, front row) and Angela Kaiser (2nd from right, front row).

We are permanently faced with challenges in the payload ground segment and in the area of data technology, the “core DNA” of our institute. On one hand it is hardly possible to plan which missions we can help shape as to development and/or operational activities. Persevering initiative; various kinds of promotion, also in the political sphere; unwavering professional and convincing end-results; and enduring high commitment, also for ongoing missions, are essential. On the other hand, we always have to be ready – technically, conceptually, and also with the required capacity – for new opportunities that may arise. It’s like a tightrope balancing act. It also means that expertise and major infrastructure have to be kept available (and financed!), when they are not working at full capacity. Accordingly, we have to think long-term, minimally in decades. Participation in big space projects cannot be authorized or successfully realized on a fast track.

DFD’s strategy was always to be well positioned with the widest possible range of expertise and systems capability. We were always known to be flexible when required. Seizing opportunities when offered. Putting aside doubts in favour of the possibility to help create something. For that reason we never counted solely on the availability of national missions like TerraSAR-X, TanDEM-X, and EnMAP (now at the preparation stage), but tried to be involved in helping to shape Europe’s ESA missions, from ERS-1 and ERS-2 to Envisat to today’s Sentinel satellites. For example, we were able to set up and successfully operate the entire ground segment for the Sentinel 5 precursor mission on behalf of ESA. In addition, IMF provided most of the science processors. This was one of the big EOC joint successes of the past decade – and it would not have been possible without 30 years of continuous preparation. However, there is still no guarantee of success, even after we have proved our capability. We have to be able to accept setbacks and painful failures after optimistically submitting proposals, and compose ourselves again and again, asking ourselves the right questions and improving ourselves so that the next time around we can again be successful.

Nevertheless, I believe it to be essential in the long term for DLR institutes like DFD to always be able to substantially participate in national earth observation missions, despite all their success with third-party financing. That is in the final analysis the whole point behind large research establishments and distinguishes us from university-level research. I am therefore greatly concerned that the continuity of DLR’s three decades of outstanding radar missions is still not assured after the end of the TanDEM-X mission. The next science mission we have planned, Tandem-L , could not be financed so far and seems to be uncertain, despite the investment of several years of considerable specialist and political effort. And a concept for participation in HRWS  – should that mission become a reality as part of the national space programme – must first be developed together with the responsible industrial partners, who in this case have been secured.

Keyword partnerships with industry: We have always sought this cooperation, despite our roots in the science system. Since the mid-1980s, for example, with the GAF-AG company in Munich founded by Dr Rupert Haydn. For many years this company has had far-reaching rights to market the data from Indian satellites, among other entitlements. Accordingly, in cooperation with GAF we operate today in Neustrelitz appropriate systems for acquiring, processing and archiving the data from these missions.

Signing the cooperation agreement with Space Imaging and GAF-AG, July 2004.
Left to right: Klaus Reiniger, Stefan Dech, EOC; Conrad Mueller, Space Imaging; Dr Rupert Haydn, GAF

Als um die Jahrtausendwende die neuste Generation höchst auflösender kommerzieller 1m-Satellitendaten (Ikonos) am Horizont erschien, kam dann auch die in Gründung befindliche Firma European Space Imaging (EUSI) auf uns zu. Diese hatte die Vertriebsrechte für diese Daten über eine Empfangsstation in Europa erworben. Und seit dem Start von Ikonos im Jahr 1999 kooperieren wir erfolgreich mit der EUSI in München. In deren Leitung stehen Mohamed El Kadi, CEO und Miteigentümer der Mutterfirma „Space Imaging Middle East“, sowie der EUSI Managing Director, Adrian Zevenbergen. In Oberpfaffenhofen betreiben wir für die EUSI die europäische Bodenstation und unterstützen bei der Prozessierung zu Standardprodukten.

At the meeting to arrange cooperation with EUSI/SI Middle East in Dubai, 2006.
Left to right: Gunter Schreier, Stefan Dech, Mohamed el Kadi, Klaus Reiniger, Adrian Zevenbergen

Because of this cooperation we could also add this type of remote sensing data to the ZKI portfolio at an early date and generate with them up to-the-minute maps for disaster management, a unique achievement at that time. In the meantime data from the MAXAR satellites of the WorldView series are also being acquired. Whenever a satellite image with up to 30 cm ground resolution is seen in the press it was probably acquired by DFD in Oberpfaffenhofen and processed in cooperation with EUSI. And of course our collaboration of many years with the Airbus company (formerly Astrium or their subsidiary Infoterra) in the Public Private Partnership (PPP) missions TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X must be mentioned. We operate up to the present time these two satellite missions in cooperation with four DLR institutes and generate high-quality data products, also for the customers of our commercial partner Airbus. The highpoint of the collaboration was without doubt the generation of a global elevation model (DEM) from TanDEM-X mission data. After the data set was again enhanced and edited by industry, this “WorldDEM” is today one of the most important data types in the commercial portfolio of Airbus.

We were always aware that the unusual feature of our amalgamation of experts, namely technology developers and operators of an earth observation ground segment and in parallel scientists in a geo-remote sensing research institute, means at one and the same time great opportunities and great responsibilities. Even when the various tasks sometimes seem to be carried out ”side by side” we strive to interlink the two areas so that there can be added value in both directions -- and thus for EOC and DLR as a whole. Projects like UKIS (Environmental and Crisis Information Systems) or Timeline (assembly of a consistent AVHRR product series covering four decades), and also the operation of WDC-RSAT, help us to do exactly that. Especially the DFD Information Technology department (Eberhard Mikusch has been the successor of Kurt Schmidt since 2003 the department head) has in recent years developed a wide range of in-house services, including a complete Sentinel data archive that is updated daily, and project-related data access and safeguarding systems, which increasingly benefit our own research as well.

In the past few years – since about 2016 –HPDA (computer systems for High Performance Data Analytics applications) has become a defining theme. By providing data structures like Google or Amazon offer today, it is possible in principle even for a small group of scientists to process decades’ worth of global data inventories at high spatial resolution. Doing this requires three ingredients: the right data inventories (historic and current), suitably processed and available immediately thereafter online (whether stored in a cloud or centrally is unimportant as far as the user is concerned), and powerful computers with high I/O performance, appropriate interfaces and software for onboarding one’s own algorithms onto a HPDA system so that one can, in the end, successfully carry out calculations. And finally, there are also requirements that can be classified under the heading of “HPC”  but are today considered separately as HPDA systems because of the big data components. Our GeoFarm, developed to facilitate global big data calculation by our own EOC scientists, was soon no longer adequate. As a result,, our algorithms are instead increasingly traveling worldwide to the data and to the computer capacity. With free-of-charge access to Sentinel data and freely available computer power on its Google Earth Engine, Google, among other providers, makes scientists an apparently “unbeatable offer”. Some technical limitations still exist, so it is not always possible to do everything that is algorithmically desirable. But much more important are questions of the reliability of our own technology, the price to be paid for free-of-charge offers, and how long this free-of-charge business model will be available. We all know at the latest since Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress that “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

So we went on a search for solutions, and together with informatics colleagues at Würzburg University had already developed a promising concept that received a very positive evaluation from the Bavarian state government in preliminary discussions. There was a reasonable chance of financing in 2018 (Bavaria had often helped us to initiate a new strategic course of action. For example, our positioning in ESA‘s Copernicus ground segment would not have been possible without Bavaria’s project financing.) However, our HPDA concept somehow came at the wrong time. Many new DLR institutes were waiting to be formally established, and funding requests were always evaluated also as to their strategic value regionally and their follow-up costs. At any rate, the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs did not want to support at that time any additional initiatives that threatened long-term financial obligations. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing. I was looking for an alternative and discussed our requirements with Prof. Dieter Kranzlmüller, chairman of the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) Board of Directors in Garching. Although I did not yet have a prospect of the required funding at the time, we were soon convinced of the goal and got busy. The “TERRA_Byte” concept was born, a trailblazing alliance linking earth observation in Oberpfaffenhofen and LRZ. Together we want to counter in the future the international data giants with a clever and sustainable solution for our own earth observation research, achieved through DFD and LRZ technical interaction. In the end both sides could arrange for the necessary project financing, and on May 27, 2019 in Garching we signed a cooperative agreement together with the DLR Executive Board member responsible for Space Affairs, Prof. Hansjörg Dittus, who had significantly supported this initiative, Bavarian State Minister Bernd Sibler, and others. That was the starting signal for the following operative phase of the project. In the meantime it is off to a good start with several test applications that have been successfully  implemented on the Super-MUC computer in Garching.

Signing the cooperation agreement on May 27, 2019 at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) in Garching near Munich.
Left to right: Prof. Dieter Kranzlmüller, LRZ, Prof. Thomas Höllmann, Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Bavarian State Minister Bernd Sibler, DLR Executive Board member Prof. Hansjörg Dittus and Prof. Stefan Dech, DLR-EOC

Also as to external presentation, we are now taking on the big players. The exhibitions “Wonders of Nature” (2016-2017) and “The Call of the Mountains” (2018-2019) that we carried out in cooperation with Gasometer Oberhausen turned out to be widely visible “eye-catchers” for the general public. For “Wonders of Nature” we used sophisticated projection technology to produce an enormous 20 m diameter Earth globe hanging suspended in the Gasometer. For “The Call of the Mountains” an oversized Matterhorn literally stood on its head. Looking into the mirror placed below it gave the impression of viewing the mountain from the air. Created by Nils Sparwasser and his team together with Gasometer head Jeannette Schmitz and curator Peter Pachnicke, both exhibitions were viewed by more than two million visitors and were absolute publicity highlights in the 40 year history of DFD and the 20 years of EOC. Jeannette Schmitz meanwhile likes to welcome me to lectures at the Gasometer (and they are one of my greatest professional pleasures!) as someone who considers the Gasometer to be his new branch facility. Which is regarded there as a mark of distinction and produces an amused smile.

The Earth sculpture created by DFD at Gasometer Oberhausen
The Matterhorn sculpture at Gasometer Oberhausen

Dies alles niederschreibend – und dabei doch nur einige der wichtigen Entwicklungen anzusprechen zu können – wird mir bewusst, welchen Weg wir gegangen sind, was wir mit Begeisterung und Beharrlichkeit erreicht haben. Wenn ich von „wir“ in diesem Blog geschrieben habe, dann sind das die über vier Dekaden tätigen Mitarbeitenden des DFD. Ganz besonders kluge, phantasievolle, engagierte und begeisterungsfähige Menschen. Ein Team, für das einzutreten und zu kämpfen eine Selbstverständlichkeit ist. Willi Wildegger, langjähriger IT-Manager im EOC, absolutes DFD-Urgestein und viele Jahre als unsere gute Seele des Hauses bekannt, gab nach 39 Jahren im Februar 2020 noch kurz vor Corona seinen Ausstand. Dabei sagte er: „Ich hatte immer das Gefühl, an etwas Sinnvollem mitzuwirken“.

Willi Wildegger and his colleagues at his farewell party early in 2020

Epilogue: On October 21, 2020 the 20th EOC leadership team retreat took place, this time, unusually, as a Skype online conference because of the Corona pandemic. At this retreat we were able to look ahead to the next steps in our development, to make use of fascinating methodologies and technologies of satellite-supported earth observation for the important topics associated with global change. With unfailing enthusiasm and great optimism we look forward together to the next few years.

I thank all my DLR colleagues with whom I was privileged to work for almost three and a half decades. I look forward to continuing our joint history!

The EOC leadership team on October 21, 2020 on the occasion of the 20th EOC retreat.