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Space for Smart and Circular Cities

According to the most recent estimates, by 2050 the planet will have a population of 9.6 billion people with the majority (66%, with respect to current 50%) living in urban areas. This urban expansion, combined with the challenges brought by climate change, will create a series of issues related to the management of resources such as water, raw materials and energy.

Global cities are increasingly moving towards smart solutions to become more circular and resilient for a more sustainable management of resources. According to the European Commission, a smart city is “a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses”. The main components of a smart city are: smart urban transport networks, smart water supply and waste disposal facilities, smart lighting and heating systems for buildings. In this sense, circularity becomes one of the components of a smart city.

The market

The market for services related to smart cities is expected to grow sharply in the coming years, with an increase of + 57% in the period 2020-2025. Despite this trend, there are still several obstacles that stand in the way of a complete development of the ecosystem: lack of citizens awareness, lack of access to broadband connection in some city areas, lack of integration between the different data sources, an ecosystem still too fragmented among citizens, local and state governments and private companies, insufficient investments to face the high initial costs for these technologies, concerns regarding the protection and security of managed data.

China is expected to lead the way in the transition towards the smart city ecosystem, as Chinese consumers are more willing to share their data in their daily life services such as customised travel planning, real-time information on traffic, shared mobility, parking management, safety and security. In this regard, there are already more than 500 pilot projects in China.

The contribution of the Space sector

Space technologies can provide a very important contribution to cities for this transition (e.g. air quality monitoring, water quality monitoring, urban planning, traffic management, green areas mapping, etc.). Data from ESA’s satellite constellations enable data-driven decisions thanks to the availability of unbiased, consistent, and timely data. In particular, the Galileo system with its 1.8 billion users worldwide is a key player in this sector, providing support for services such as public transport optimisation, smart parking, autonomous electric transportation, emergency tracking and more. Another type of contribution comes from technologies developed for space that can generate terrestrial applications.

Use cases

The MELiSSA project

The MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) project by Airbus France was started and proposed to ESA 30 years ago in ESTEC. The objective is to optimise the resources recovery for very long-term space missions, leading to recycle the main part of the wastes: oxygen, water and food, packaging, tissues,… The technology inspires by  a terrestrial ecosystem consists of an assembly of processes structure on a complete cycle and make use of a road catalogue of technologies such as  :plants, bacteria, membrane, catalysers,… The wastes of the missions  are injected in the cycle and passed into the different transformation processes which, through the aforementioned technologies, create drinkable water, hygiene water, oxygen and food for the crew at the end of the cycle.

Today, there are 50 organisation in Europe involved in the project and 6 Spin-off companies in several commercial sectors committed in improving the status of circular economy on Earth.

  1. Hydrohm: one of these 6 companies is Hydrohm, a company that developed the Uridis technology. They plan to treat the urine with a Uridis cell, an electrochemical system developed in the framework of the MELiSSA programme that treats the urine to create flushing water and retrieve part of the nutrients for crop growth.
  2. ezCOL: this company has created a technology based on bacteria which grows from organic wastes and fights bad cholesterol.
  3. SEMiLLA sanitation: it is a truck container that you can move to a specific location during an event. It treats part of the gray water (waste water from showers, dish washers and washing machines) in order to recycle it and reduce the consumption of flush water.
  4. SEMiLLA maritime: project with the aim to drastically reduce the wastes release from the yachts, still in an R&D phase.
  5. SHERPA: providing tools to diagnose the level of circularity of industrial areas, to get advices on how to structure and/or improve it.
  6. ESTEE: based in Switzerland, this project’s goal is to create habitats for remote locations by recycling gray, urine and organic wastes and support food production.

Escherichia coli Alert Data Service

This project, still in the development phase, aims to investigate the viability of creating and Escherichia coli Alert Data Service for environmental agencies and local authorities. This technology will leverage on an analysis method for the fusion of lab, sensor measurements and satellite data to provide local authorities, environmental agencies and governments information on the likelihood of a contamination event occurring. This will lead to informed decision on whether or not to restrict access to a given coastal area, with the benefit of reducing the risk of the spread of the illnesses associated with this bacteria in coastal waters, since areas could be closed before Escherichia coli reaches these areas.


Air pollution in large cities is one of the main problems that will have to be addressed in the coming years, as most people living in large cities breathe air with pollution levels above the WHO limits. To address this problem, a clear understanding of local situations is essential. The CitySatAir project aims to develop a technology that, leveraging on various data sources and mathematical algorithms, provides high resolution air quality maps.

EO4CBI: Earth Observation for City Biodiversity Index

To determine if a city is developing in a sustainable way, it is of fundamental importance to evaluate the impact of its development on ecosystems and biodiversity. The EO4CBI project, developed – and validated in 10 cities (Addis Ababa, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Edmonton, Hamilton, Lisbon, Portland, Southern Luxembourg, Stockholm and Tallinn) – innovative and cost-effective solutions based on satellite-based data in combination with appropriate in-situ and ancillary data for the implementation of four CBI (City Biodiversity Index) indicators.

Infrastructure Projects Implementation and Economic Outcomes in Armenia (EO Clinic)

In recent years, Armenia has experienced an important infrastructure growth rate that is recognized to be one of the key factors behind long-run economic growth. Thanks to the support of the EO clinic it will be possible to identify the variations of the urban fabric of specific regions of the country measured by the Earth Observation satellites, with the aid of optical and or radar datasets, to evaluate the changes in economic activity in the areas. Read more about the project.

Characterisation of Waste Sites Along the Lim River in Serbia (EO Clinic)

In Serbia pollution of rivers, poor waste management in areas that can pollute rivers and illegal landfills cause a serious problem of environmental protection. This project carried out for the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) in support of the Serbian Ministry of Environmental Protection aims to map illegal dump sites along the riverbeds, in particular in the Drina and Lim rivers, using satellite data from Earth Observation. The waste from these landfills, in fact, arrives in rivers when the water level rises, causing environmental and economic damage.

Urban Mobility Plan Development in Chisinau, Moldova (EO Clinic)

Uncontrolled urbanisation can cause serious problems to the social fabric of a city, such as social exclusion, under-developed infrastructure, threatened urban security and safety, air pollution, traffic congestion, unauthorised and illegal constructions. UNDP Moldova is carrying out a project related to the capital, the city of Chisinau, to establish a collaborative platform that will leverage on spatial data to generate insights and understand development patterns and then use the new evidence for experimentation work.

Infrastructure Mapping and Planning

Infrastructures are fundamental facilities and systems serving countries and cities and must be constantly monitored to check for possible damages resulting from aging, earthquakes, atmospheric events, floods and subsidence. In this context, Earth Observation data coming from EU Sentinel and ESA Earth Explorer missions, combined with in-situ data, are able to deliver highly valuable information on our urban environments and infrastructures. Read more about the project.


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