Business Leader meets Terra Motion – a star in the UK space sector

Terra Motion is a leading provider of ground motion products – and its pioneering work is being used to help tackle some of the world’s major challenges, including combating climate change and human slavery, and supporting renewable energy deployment.

Based in Nottingham, Terra Motion has a global customer base with clients in North America, Asia and Europe.

After winning the prestigious Copernicus Masters prize, also known as the ‘Space Oscars’ in 2014, the business was last year chosen as one of the 15 star companies in the UK space sector by Business Leader Magazine.

At the forefront of technology and innovation, Terra Motion uses data gathered by Earth observation satellites to map the motion of the Earth’s surface to millimetric accuracy.

Uniquely, the technology the firm has developed can map this movement over a complete set of natural and vegetated surfaces, as well as urban areas.

This has opened completely new markets for the business, addressing key challenges such as monitoring and combating the effects of climate change, supporting renewable energy deployment and improving carbon accounting, as well as providing a more comprehensive service for clients in established sectors such as planning, insurance and infrastructure risk monitoring.

This novel solution to the problem of monitoring ground motion in rural areas was developed by Dr Andy Sowter when at the University of Nottingham.

Dr Sowter retains strong links with academic colleagues, who are continuing to develop, test and publish new research findings based on this revolutionary approach.

As an example, collaborations with a number of universities across the UK are showing that the technology can be used to quantify the success of peatland restoration, an important way to fight climate change and address the nation’s carbon balance.

Terra Motion is also currently involved in demonstrating the use of its unique approach to find evidence of modern slavery and in the monitoring of renewable energy sites.

The basic products offered by Terra Motion are maps of the rise and fall of the land surface over time. These maps can cover anything from an area the size of a private allotment to an entire country.

The company recently completed a number of surveys of the entire Netherlands for the Dutch Ministry of Water Management and Infrastructure to help model climate change resilience and has provided detailed baseline profiles of land motion over a number of brownfield sites across the UK to support commercial planning applications.

As these new applications emerge, the company is finding a niche in the support of sustainable markets, far away from the more traditional engineering geology applications addressed by their competitors.

Terra Motion has a mission to further consolidate its role in climate change, renewable energy and carbon capture and storage and to establish the company as a key provider at local, regional, national and global scales to help restore and preserve major ecosystem services.

Business Leader caught up with Terra Motion Chief Technical Officer Dr Andrew Sowter to learn more…

Terra Motion CTO Dr Andrew Sowter.

Can you talk us through the origins of Terra Motion?

The key technology that underpins our novel solution to measure earth surface movement was invented in 2012 while I was a Lecturer at the University of Nottingham. Although we recognised the very real research potential this could enable, we could see the huge commercial possibilities and user benefits the technology offered, too.

We entered a major European commercial innovation competition in 2014, won it, and shortly after, received grant funding from the UK government. We began trading in 2015 as Geomatic Ventures Limited and only recently re-branded as Terra Motion Limited to raise investment and also to focus on the green agenda.

It’s a major venture to get off the ground – where did you get the support and financial backing to make this vision a reality?

Winning the Copernicus Masters in 2014 was a major boost and gave us huge confidence when we applied for financial support. We were almost immediately successful in gaining Launchpad funding from Innovate UK, with the support of the university, and were part of the ESA Business Incubation Centre in Harwell for a year. This was a brilliant start that allowed us to employ staff to turn a research capability into a commercially viable production line.

How has TerraMotion grown since its inception?

The most dramatic change in the company has been the operating capability. Back in 2015, it would take as much as three weeks to survey the area of a single satellite image frame, some 250km square. Now we can complete a survey of the entire UK, comprising around 28 image frames, in about six weeks. This would not be possible without the two Senior Technical Officers that we employ, David and Ahmed, who really should take some credit. We’ve also built up a considerable, and growing, portfolio of commercial clients across sectors such as consulting engineering, mining, property planning and conveyancing and transport network management.

TerraMotion is today supporting efforts to combat a number of major global issues, such as climate change and modern slavery. How important is this to you?

It is fantastic, I have to say, and was not foreseen when we started the company. Traditionally, the satellite technology we use has been the preserve of engineering surveyors and geologists so to now be around the table with ecologists, environmentalists and human geographers is quite extraordinary. To be able to contribute, and to contribute significantly, by providing new types of data that could impact on people’s quality of life and on the future of the planet is something we all aspire to, isn’t it?

Your work has been celebrated through a number of prestigious awards – how much does that recognition mean to you?

Starting a company can be very daunting and it can be very hard to establish yourselves as an innovative company in a highly competitive field. But we have weathered the storm, proven our worth, and are now really breaking the mould with what we have done. Awards are a massive indication that, somewhere out there, someone recognises you are doing a good job and it’s an encouragement to keep going.

How much further can your tech evolve? What are your ambitions for the future?

Oh, there are always improvements to our processing capability that need to be done. Mapping is great but we are seeing a growing demand for regular monitoring services, which has big implications for processing, storage and organisation. It is also changing our perspective on how to deliver such high-volume and specialised products in a way that a client will find easy to use. However, this is only the start. If we are to get a grip on climate change then we will need to do this sort of monitoring everywhere from the tundras of the high Arctic to the peat swamp forests on the equator. A challenging prospect in many ways but oh so very thrilling, too!