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An Estonian-built e-service is monitoring infrastructure from space

Datel, one of the oldest privately owned Estonian IT companies, expanded its core business this spring by stepping into space – figuratively speaking of course. With the help of the European Space Agency (ESA), Datel is providing high accuracy space-based infrastructure deformation monitoring.

To put it simply, Datel’s e-service Sille uses satellite data to detect displacement in bridges, pipelines, houses, and other infrastructure. Thanks to that, the user of the service can get a fast, reliable and accurate measurement without the need to hire surveyors to do geodetics analysis, which can take a long time to finish. Sille uses information gathered by radars to detect shifts and subsidence of objects with the precision of up to one millimetre. The service helps prevent accidents caused by deterioration of infrastructure and contributes to general safety.

The service is intended for the global market and even allows users to look back in time 4 years (data collected from 2014); it can be implemented instantly anywhere around the world.

You don’t need a degree to use the service

According to the CTO of Datel, Agu Leinfeld, the biggest difference with competitors is the simplicity of the service. He emphasises that you don’t need a degree to use Sille.

‘The user interface is simple: our service is built with the idea that the end user doesn’t need to know what technology is used in the background. The user needs to get an overview of whether everything is alright with the object or infrastructure they are monitoring or whether they need to react. The service is designed for people who do not know how the systems work,’ says Leinfeld.

Even though the user sees data displayed on Google Maps like a map application, peeking into the system reveals that Sille actually sees the world through a radar and not a camera lens. The decision to use radar lies in the clouds above our heads. Cameras cannot see through them so a radar is needed to collect measurements. But for the user to understand the measurements, the team had to convert it into a map to make it simple to understand. The data is updated every six days.

At the moment, Sille uses data gathered by European Space Agency (ESA) operated satellites but the service is built in a way that it could use data from other sources as well. Leinfeld gets really excited when talking about their R&D cooperation agreement with ESA. It came as a surprise when ESA mentioned Sille on their website even before the service was live for public use.

International clients and 24/7 working conditions

Alongside notable clients in Estonia, the service grabbed the attention of the US State of Maryland where the system is used to monitor bridges, landslides, sink holes, road surfaces, on-ramps, and other infrastructure across the State.

Even though Sille is not a startup, but rather a service from a company founded 28 years ago, at its core it is comparable to an agile startup. The service is challenging current working habits and the traditional approach to infrastructure monitoring. New value chain creators are usually called startups, but the Estonian technology sector is known for its constantly innovative experienced companies.

According to Leinfeld, one of the proofs of this is their subscription-based service, which is very different from their competitors. ‘Instead of filling out forms, submitting requests, drafting projects and waiting for a bid, our approach is flexible. Just sign up, get access and start using it,’ says Leinfeld.

Sille’s sales pitch includes all-weather, 24/7 working conditions, and coverage of the whole Earth with systematic monitoring of preset areas.

The service went live around late spring this year, right now the company has over 10 paying customers but there is interest from many more potential customers. For the customers who cannot make up their minds, or for curious people wanting to try the service, Datel provides a free demo version of Sille. In the demo, you can use all of the same capabilities available in the full version.

One of the services that the development team has yet to activate, after spending 20 000 work-hours to finish it, is an automated notification system. According to Leinfeld, their service already has it built in but, at the moment, users prefer to check the gathered data and compare it with the old data themselves. Leinfeld is open to activating the notification system if a customer requests it.

In use by the Estonian road administration and monitoring nuclear power plants

One of the earliest adopters of Sille was the Estonian Road Administration – they already got their hands on a pilot version three years ago. The administration is a prime example of a client that can benefit from the service. They are either owners or caretakers of many major infrastructural objects with the obligation to monitor all objects in their area of responsibility, which could be major work.

Still, remote sensing does not cut out the need for humans. It’s an ideal solution to notify the humans if an object needs to be checked. The decision of whether the object in question needs repair or maintenance still needs to be assessed by a human who visits the location and inspects it.

While the system can detect even the slightest movement of an object, it cannot detect, for example, rust. Thinking of bridges, rust can be a major source of danger that needs to be checked by engineers onsite.

The most intriguing cooperation is currently with an energy consortium called Tecnatom, which provides support for nuclear power plants around the world.

Leinfeld sees huge potential in an early warning system based on information gathered from satellites. He hopes that in the future it will be mandatory in Estonia to display the so-called ‘permanent markers’ in the structural hubs of buildings that reflect themselves into space so satellites can detect them easily. This would take supervision of buildings to a new level.

By the way, as of January 1st 2018 there were 488 women in Estonia named Sille. It’s the 310th most popular female name in Estonia. The average age of a female Sille is 35 years – so Datel’s e-service Sille has a long life ahead.

More information about Sille can be found at www.sille.space

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